Heaven knows we're miserable now – UK lags in happiness stakes

David Cameron has set great store on the nation's wellbeing – but a survey shows he has a lot of work to do

People in Britain have a less positive outlook than those in the United States, according to the first study of wellbeing in the UK.

Less than half of British adults feel they are thriving, while American citizens experience more happiness and enjoyment, scientists say.

The findings, from a survey of 3,000 adults over the past three months, were presented yesterday at a meeting to discuss how data on well-being could be used to change policy and create a happier and more productive society. The session coincided with the launch of Action for Happiness, a charity aiming to encourage a mass movement of people pursuing a better way of life, which was addressed by the happiness guru Lord Richard Layard, of the London School of Economics, Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, and Geoff Mulgan, director of the Young Foundation.

The Office for National Statistics is for the first time to include four questions about well-being in the Integrated Household Survey from this month, including how satisfied people are with their lives, how happy or anxious they feel and to what extent they feel "the things you do in your life are worthwhile".

The developments represent an attempt to shift policy-making from a narrow focus on economic growth to include wider measures such as the development of communities and the provision of worthwhile work. The new questions were requested by David Cameron, who said last year that he would consider altering Government policy if the results indicated change was necessary.

The first survey conducted by Gallup in association with Healthways, an American organisation which has run similar surveys in the US since 2008, found the British are healthier than the Americans, with lower rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and rate higher on measures of "basic access" to the essentials of life, such as free NHS healthcare.

One in four Britons are obese, the same as in the US, and another third are overweight. Less than half in both nations take regular exercise but Britons are healthier eaters and consume more fruits and vegetables. But smoking is more popular in Britain.

And four out of 10 Britons say they are unhappy with their bosses, who do not treat them as partners but as people to take orders.

Americans live at a higher pitch, suffering more stress and worry but also experiencing more happiness and enjoyment. The Well-Being Index designed by Gallup and Healthways is based on six domains and suggests overall well-being declines from age 18 to 64. The six domains are: life evaluation; healthy behaviours; emotional health; basic access (to food, shelter, healthcare); work environment; and physical health.

The companies claim the index is a strong predictor of the relative costs of healthcare for individuals, businesses and countries. People who are thriving have healthcare costs 20 per cent lower than average, while those who are struggling have costs 50 per cent higher.

Ben Leedle, president of Healthways, said that increasing healthcare costs were a threat to the economies of all developed nations but solutions that focused on the ill left out half of the picture. "Healthier people cost less and perform better," he said.

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