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(By Rohan Talbot, RSA Intern for Connected Communities and Social Brain)

Reading through the 2008 Social Capital Survey carried out in Camden, I came across something that piqued my interest. Among the various findings of the survey was the discovery that residents’ perceptions of whether they could influence local decision-making (either individually or collectively), are related to their satisfaction with their local area and quality of life. Higher satisfaction with quality of life was also found among those who thought they had a choice over whether or not they had to live in that local area.

This seems to chime with research in clinical and health psychology demonstrating the importance of personal ‘perceived control’ to human wellbeing. There is a wealth of evidence suggesting that people in stressful circumstances (including physical or mental illness) who believe that they have some control over the situation and their lives generally tend to have better physical and psychological health outcomes.

Sir Michael Marmot, professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCL and author of ‘The Status Syndrome: How social standing directly affects our health and longevity’, has pointed out that socioeconomic status is inversely related to health and life expectancy, even when risk factors such as smoking or high cholesterol are controlled for.  Resources such as income and social support give people more choices and therefore more opportunities to change aspects of their lives that they may be dissatisfied with. Understandably, therefore, those with lower socioeconomic status often feel a lack of control over their lives. A lack of perceived control may therefore be not only contributing to the low reported wellbeing and satisfaction in deprived communities, but also to their significantly poorer health. Marmot argues that this link is due to the fact that low status leads to stress, which in turn can directly harm health.

Reviewing research into personal control beliefs, John and Catherine MacArthur also found that perceived control may buffer against some of the negative effects of low socioeconomic status:

“…among those with less education or income, those with strong control beliefs reported health outcomes comparable to those seen in higher SES groups for self-rated health, acute physical symptoms, depressive symptoms and life satisfaction.”

If we wish to improve the community wellbeing, perhaps we should seek to increase the control people feel they have over their lives. The most direct way to do this is to increase the material resources and developing education, income and public services. Nevertheless, in a time when financial belts are being tightened and there are fewer resources available for development, we may have to look at less expensive ways to increase people’s actual and perceived control.

Informing people of what decisions are being made in their local area, and ensuring residents’ voices are heard in decision making (e.g. the Tower Hamlets ‘You Decide!’ initiative to give residents a say in how the local budget is spent), may contribute to perceived control. Enabling people to connect to a wider social network of others with similar interests and concerns, who may be collectively able to influence decision-making, may also help. Perhaps even the process of surveying communities may have a positive impact, so long as those being surveyed believe that their opinions and concerns are being listened to and that the research will address local problems.

Whatever projects giving people more control over their lives and communities are pursued, they can clearly a positive impact beyond people’s engagement with the community and satisfaction with their quality of life. They may help make our communities not only happier, but potentially healthier too.


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