Associate Professor Elizabeth Eckermann (M.A., Ph.D) is a medical sociologist in the Arts Faculty at Deakin University where she teaches sociology of health and illness, and supervises postgraduate candidates completing health sociology doctoral and masters studies. She is co-convenor of the Australian Centre on Quality of Life at Deakin University and from 2002 to 2005 was Associate Dean: Research in the Arts Faculty. In the past 10 years she has undertaken more than 20 consultancies for the World Health Organization (WHO), in Geneva and at the Western Pacific Regional Office (WPRO) in Manila, on gender and health issues. Most recently she completed an evaluation for WHO of a pilot Maternity Waiting Home project in Lao PDR ( in August 2005) and in January 2006 she edited a book for WHO, WPRO on gender-based violence in the Region. Her key areas of research interest and publication cover, women’s health, gender and health, domestic violence, quality of life and indicators of health status, health promotion and public health. Associate Professor Eckermann is on the Board of Directors of the International Society for Quality of Life Studies and coordinates the Lao PDR chapter of the International Wellbeing Index. She is a spokesperson for the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index research project which has involved a collaboration between Deakin University and Australian Unity since 2001.
Interview with Associate Professor Elizabeth Eckermann
How was the concept for the multi-award winning Australian Unity Wellbeing Index developed?
The Index was developed by Professor Bob Cummins from the Australian Centre on Quality of Life at Deakin University. Its application to the Australian population is a collaborative venture between Deakin University and Australian Unity in response to a need to gauge how satisfied Australians are with various aspects of their lives. Much has been written about the objective conditions of living in Australian for a variety of population groups but no systematic research had been conducted by 2001 on people’s subjective perceptions of their lives in this country. Over the past decade, Professor Cummins has investigated many domains as potential key indicators of subjective wellbeing and the domains which appear in the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index are the seven which have been shown to contribute most to overall wellbeing.
The theoretical framework which informed the development of the Index, and frames the interpretation of the data, is Professor Cummins’ theory of Subjective Wellbeing Homeostasis.’ This theory proposes that each person has a set-point for personal wellbeing that is internally maintained and defended’. The theory hypothesises that this set-point is ‘genetically determined’ and that ‘on average, causes personal wellbeing to be held at 75 points on a 0-100 scale’ and that ‘the normal level of individual set-point variation is between about 60-90 percentage points’. The theory holds that ‘for people who are already operating within this set-point range, the provision of additional personal resources… cannot normally increase the set-point on a long term basis due to the genetic ceiling. Such resources can, however, strengthen defences against negative experience’. However, low levels of personal resources can weaken homeostasis, and if excessive stress or pain is experienced, homeostasis can be defeated and ‘subjective wellbeing decreases to lie below its normal range. In these circumstances, the provision of additional resources may allow the person to regain control of their wellbeing’ and ‘will cause personal wellbeing to rise until it lies within their set-point range” (Cummins, 2006: Australian Unity Wellbeing Index Report 13.1:1)
Can you briefly explain how the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index was investigated?
The Index measures levels of satisfaction in seven domains- standard of living, health, achievements in life, personal relationships, how safe people feel, community connectedness, future security- and produces a composite score called the Personal Wellbeing Index. Wellbeing is rated on a 0-100 scale for each domain, with 0 representing ‘completely dissatisfied’ and 100 ‘completely satisfied’ in answer to the question” how satisfied are you with your health, your standard of living…” etc. For Survey 13 all results from the previous 12 surveys were combined with a total sample of 22,829 records. Report 13.1 compared the wellbeing of Australians across 150 electoral divisions.
What was your specific role in the investigation of the Index?
I am a co-founder of the Centre on Quality of Life at Deakin University and over the past decade have conducted research on gender dimensions of quality of life and social indicators of wellbeing. I am a member the International Wellbeing Group, which applies the Personal Wellbeing Index across a variety of countries, and currently am collecting data using the Index in Lao PDR. Given my experience in the field, I am a spokesperson for the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index.
One of the conclusions that was made in Report 13.1 of The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index was that "feeling connected to others and how safe people feel are the most outstanding differences separating the high and low scoring divisions." Can you explain why some of the other seven domains (standard of living, health, achieving in life, personal relationships, and future security) did not factor into this equation?
Social connectedness and safety seem to reflect the core values of Australians at this point in the country’s history. The fact that satisfaction with social connectedness went up after 9-11 and the Bali bombings indicates that Australians on the whole are seeking out points of connectedness with their communities. In this case, shared horror, and maybe even relief that such events were occurring out side of the country, seem to have had an effect on overall wellbeing and maybe shocked us all out of our shared complacency. It is probably easier to apply the ‘she’ll be right mate’ philosophy to areas that we feel we have at least some agency over, namely our material circumstances, health, personal relationships and future. The two domains that rely on many others to cooperate are safety and connectedness so we may feel more vulnerable in these areas and consequently these two dimensions of wellbeing are more sensitive to external conditions.
What were some of the specific aspects that were investigated in relation to whether individuals felt connected to others? How did greater connection with others manifest itself in Electorate Divisions which had high scores for this domain?
The question on social connectedness did not probe into specific dimensions. It purely asked how satisfied respondents were with their level of community connectedness. If we look at scores on social connectedness and examine the demographic characteristics, facilities and practices of people within each electorate, we find that those electorates that had higher scores tended to be outside the metropolitan area (except for Higgins in Metropolitan Melbourne which has a high immigrant population), an older population, a skewed sex bias in favour of women, a higher proportion of married people, and more open public space.
With the finding that "high population density can make it more difficult for people to feel part of a community, often reducing a sense of belonging, safety and wellbeing", and given that reducing population density is difficult to attain, what strategies do you advocate for how individual well-being can be improved in such areas?
Town planning issues should be addressed by those with the skills, qualifications and experience in the area. However, from the point of view of a medical sociologist some social and logistical initiatives could be – affordable, accessible and acceptable (including high quality) child care, public transport, open spaces and community facilities for sport and recreation.
Having pointed out "that some of the other characteristics of high scoring electorates include more females," and that this was one of a group of characteristics "that have little influence on wellbeing, but collectively the impact is significant," do you feel that gender could be investigated further to assess if this characteristic does have an influence on the scoring of wellbeing? Gender needs and identity, for example, are so diverse and such thinking lends itself to assume that gender is a significant factor in assessing wellbeing.
Gender acts in interesting ways in health and wellbeing. Evidence points to women’s longevity compared to men in most countries of the world but greater morbidity levels for females. However, when it comes to quality of life we get some complicated findings. The Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (Women Health Australia) and other large scale social surveys tell us that women’s objective conditions of life still seem to be worse than men’s (disposable income, job opportunities, access to power and decision-making, leisure time, competing roles). Some quality of life measures, especially those which examine both objective conditions and subjective perceptions, show that women’s quality of life is lower than men’s. However, the Personal Wellbeing Index, looks only at subjective measures and consistently reveals higher scores for women than men. The concept of resilience, which is so central to the theory behind the Index is the most plausible explanation for such differences. Women appear to be more resilient than men in difficult circumstances. Maybe it is because they have had more practice! The greater emphasis on emotional literacy in the gender socialization of girls appears to equip females of all ages to battle through difficult times and to draw others into the problem solving process. In contrast, masculine socialization has tended to emphasize independence and going it alone. It is little wonder than men are less satisfied with their levels of social connectedness when they discover that the fortress response to problems does not work.
The Report stated that the state with the best over-all wellbeing profile is Victoria and the state with the worst over-all wellbeing profile is Western Australia . Are there any lessons that can be learnt by politicians and local government in Western Australia to turn the situation around?
Western Australia ’s geographical isolation from the other states and territories of Australia would appear to be a key factor in the lower overall scores for WA. Hopefully the sitting members (and opposition candidates) in the lower scoring electorates will examine the provision of services, including public transport, childcare, sporting and recreational venues in their electorates to see if any improvements can be made to maximize the chances of increased wellbeing amongst their constituents.
Was there any finding that surprised you? Why?
The lack of correlation between high income and wellbeing has certainly been reported in earlier work, including in previous Australian Unity Wellbeing Index reports. However, the degree of extra resources that is needed to increase wellbeing by even 1 percentage point was surprising. This points to an interesting irony in the Australian psyche. A high proportion of Australians gamble on horse races, cross-lottos, casino games, and other ‘get rich quick’ schemes as if a win will change their lives around, yet the evidence points to very little impact of an influx of income on people’s quality of life.
How do you regard the fact that people living in the poorer electoral divisions tend to be more satisfied with their relationships and community connection than those with higher household incomes, against the backdrop of globalization and the growing divide between rich and poor?
As was the case with gender and quality of life, the relationship between household income and quality of life is quite convoluted. Taking the example of Grayndler (metropolitan Sydney) which had the lowest overall PWI ( Personal Wellbeing Index) of all Australian electorates, we find that the electorate has one of the highest average household incomes in Australia but one of the highest rent and house price rates thus a lower than average disposable household income. Thus people in Grayndler can be trapped in their high quality houses (owned, mortgaged or rented) but have little disposable income left to afford a car, holidays or childcare. Those living outside the metropolitan area may have lower incomes but also the cost of living, especially housing, is much lower so disposable income may be higher.
It could be argued that money can buy anything, including safety and social connectedness, but set point theory argues that the genetic ceiling of subjective wellbeing tempers the positive impact of greater resources. However, very high levels of income can act as a buffer such as the capacity to buy a holiday home in a less densely populated area so that periodic escapes from the pressures of urban living are possible.
What insights hav e been gained from comparing the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index with international studies of personal well-being?
Australians score higher on the Index than many other countries. In particular, in Asian countries the set-point tends to be lower, often related to cultural and religious (especially Buddhist ) tendencies to not display too much self satisfaction. Cross-country research between Australia and Hong Kong has found significant discrepancies in set points between the two cultural contexts. PWI scores in Australia are on a par with those in Canada , Scandanavia and Switzerland .
Is there a plan for disseminating the findings of the Index to key agencies and individuals? If yes, what would be the intent of such plans?
The report findings have been distributed to the sitting members of parliament in each of the 150 electorates and to any agencies and individuals on request. The media coverage was extensive and has generated a substantial amount of interest among community groups, local and state governments as well as federal departments and representatives. In particular community media (print, radio and television) have taken up the issues as they apply to their local electorates. The report 13.1 is available on the web for any one interested in the research to use.
The intent of making the Report findings widely available is to allow governments at all levels, NGOs, community organizations and interested individuals to have access to all data for each electorate such that they can develop responses appropriate for their own electorates.