Understanding Well-being Data

chapter 8 Talking different languages of value

Following the findings

Even when you follow the processes involved in estimating the relationships in the ‘Museums and Happiness’ research, as they are broken down here, it still might be hard to see how this valuation works—from a common-sense perspective. Following the data did not find data in which

people explicitly value visiting museums at about £3200 per year, and yet this is what it appears to say. This is confusing for people who are not familiar with these kinds of valuations.

These valuations were presented as Key Findings in bold in the introduction on page 8. However, the Caveats section on page 33 clearly states:

The wellbeing valuation techniques used here are in line with welfare economic theory on valuation (which underlies all cost-benefit analysis and SROI techniques), but we should note that these values should not be seen as amounts that people would actually be willing to pay per year for these activities. (Emphasis in original)

The findings are partially presented in the Director’s Foreword, on page 5, which states:

By finding that the individual wellbeing value of museums is over £3000 a year, the report makes a strong case for investing in museums.

We are going to pause and follow some findings to see how and why this is important. They were reproduced partially in a number of places. The Museums Journal described the report as having ‘found museums improve people’s happiness and perception of good health, even after other factors that might be influencing them are accounted for’1. They also go further than the original report by claiming that visiting museums ‘boosts’ happiness. Notably, this exaggerates the claim of the report—not in the monetary estimates, but the idea of impact is exaggerated to become a boost, when impact was not being measured in these terms at all. This is an example of translating value and impact from one setting to another, and how it can easily be misinterpreted.

This is especially important because it is not a one-off. This is not the only report of this nature with key findings that were altered when they were reproduced. A report written to the DCMS in 2014 saw its findings become muddled before it reached the headlines. In Quantifying and Valuing the Wellbeing Impacts of Culture and Sport ((Fujiwara et al. 2014)), the authors present the key findings as:

Much like in ‘Museums and Happiness’, the report for DCMS also includes estimates for many activities. Towards the end of the report, on page 29, the authors express the finding that participation in dance has the highest value of £1671 pa, followed by swimming (£1630 pa) and library visits (£1359 pa). The finding about dance appears in this form, only twice in this report, in a regression table and as a finding underneath it in bold, around two-thirds of the way through the report. In other words, it is far from a headline finding. Despite the lack of prominence of this monetary estimate in the original report, it finds itself at the beginning of a journey which results in a national newspaper headline, like this one in the Telegraph: ‘Dancing makes people as happy as a £1600 pay rise’2.

This is why following the data in different ways (and in different directions: back in time and into the future) provides valuable context. In seeing where interpretations of the findings end up, we can see the impact of claims to impact. These are attractive headlines because they feel simple to grasp, and yet, as with many headlines, they obscure the real story. In recognising the appeal of these monetary headlines, we are able to see the market value of valuations like this. We can see that the numbers—and the data practices behind them—are valuable to a sector wanting to find what the Happy Museum’s director calls ‘compelling statistics’, as the language to articulate its value to Treasury.

However, these presentations of findings also create barriers for those who will scoff at how ridiculous an idea it is that anyone could know that ‘dancing makes people as happy as a £1600 pay rise’. We must also question how helpful they are to anyone in the dancing profession who might like to understand how to translate what they do into something that is valuable to a funder. At the moment, much of what is going on behind the headlines is quite obscure for those who most need to understand and articulate this relationship for themselves. This calls into question the value of these valuations in the current context.

  1. Harris 2013 []
  2. Swinton 2016 []