Community spirit and caring nature of Brits is reassuring

Dr Mark Williamson, director of Action for Happiness, responds to the results of the first national assessment of UK values

What are your most important values? You may not have been asked this question before, but it’s a very significant one. Our values shape every aspect of our lives; they determine what we care about, how we behave and what we prioritise.

Perhaps your list would include honesty, achievement or independence? Or maybe trust, fairness or patience? Your answers will undoubtedly differ from mine and probably even from your closest friends and family. But as well as being a deeply personal question, it’s also one that has huge implications for society. Our values shape the way we treat each other and the world we live in.

If we want to improve people’s wellbeing – and overcome some of our biggest societal challenges – it’s essential that we start with an understanding of what we collectively value most. So yesterday’s publication of the first national assessment of British values is very welcome. Researchers asked a representative sample of people across the UK about their personal values and also the values they see – and those they would like to see – in their local communities and the country as a whole.

It turns out that our personal values are incredibly people-orientated and outward-looking – a far cry from the self-centred culture that is so often portrayed. The top personal values included caring, family, honesty, humour and fun, friendship, fairness and compassion, as well as independence, respect and trust. This is an inspiring list by any standards and shows that we share a strong sense of concern for our fellow citizens.

When it comes to the values people experience in their local communities, the findings paint a similarly upbeat picture, with respondents highlighting quality of life, family, friendship, helpfulness and a sense of community.

“Perhaps our perception of what happens nationally is more negative than the true picture; the constant bias towards negativity in our media surely plays a big part in this”

But at the national level, the findings take a sharp turn in the opposite direction. The top values people see across the UK include bureaucracy, crime and violence, uncertainty about the future, corruption, blame, wasted resources, media influence and conflict. This is a depressing and rather familiar-sounding list. Yet when people were asked what they most wanted to see at the national level, the list included caring for the elderly and disadvantaged, affordable housing, employment opportunities, accountability, honesty and dependable public services.

So what can we conclude from all of this? Most striking of all is the vast difference between people’s personal values and those they currently observe at the national level. There is clearly a major disconnect between what matters most to people and how they feel UK society is currently operating. And part of this almost certainly reflects a frustration with the priorities being set by our leaders.

But there is something more subtle here too. People have friendly and caring personal values and see these reflected in their local communities, yet they perceive a very different world when they look beyond the places where they actually live. Perhaps our perception of what happens nationally is more negative than the true picture; the constant bias towards negativity in our media surely plays a big part in this.

We need a new national narrative that better reflects the reality of life in the UK – the good as well as the bad. Because if we ignore the noise and stop to look under the surface, we find a country full of people who think that the most important priority in life – both personally and for our society – is caring for others. Now that’s the kind of world I want to live in.

The UK National Values Assessment was compiled by the Barrett Values Centre and Action for Happiness, with support from the Office for National Statistics. Take your own Personal Values Assessment, here.