David Blanchflower: Surprise, surprise: we're less happy under the Coalition

Economic Outlook: Individuals have a lower tendency to report themselves as happy as inequality rises

Our PM has made a big deal about developing measures of well-being or happiness, when he isn't putting his foot in his mouth about energy prices. The Office of National Statistics now has a website you can go to for details on how it intends to measure "the quality of life of people in the UK, environmental and sustainability issues, as well as the economic performance of the country"*. It goes on to say that "measuring national well-being will provide a more coherent measure of how the country is doing than standalone measures such as GDP".

It is well known, of course, that GDP hasn't grown for a long time. Four of the last five and five of the last seven quarters have been negative; not even half of the drop in output since the start of the recession in the second quarter of 2008 has been restored. So it would be good to look at other measures of the country's well-being: it turns out we have a lot of data to help us.

The ONS has made an initial start to its well-being programme by including four questions on happiness in one of its major surveys, the Annual Population Survey. The questions asked are: a) how satisfied are you with your life nowadays? b) to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile? c) how happy did you feel yesterday? d) how anxious did you feel yesterday? Answers are coded on a scale from one to ten.

So what have they found? Most people are happy; more than half of respondents report scores from 8-10 on the happiness question, while fewer than 5 per cent report scores of 2 or less. Results are similar with life satisfaction and whether life is worthwhile. Just over 10 per cent of respondents report scores of eight or higher for being anxious.

I have taken a look at the micro data from David Cameron's study which confirms earlier studies showing that well-being is U-shaped in age, that is the young and the old are happiest, which means there is a mid-life crisis. This is true whichever of the four measures is used. It makes little difference what measure of happiness you use, and you get almost the flip image of happiness when you look at unhappiness. As you would expect, unhappiness, including being anxious, has an inverse U-shape in age; there is evidence of a similar U-shape in taking antidepressants or seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist. Unemployment makes people very unhappy; the reserve army of the unemployed is a conscript army, not a volunteer army. Being unemployed is horrid. Married people are happier than single people as well as people who live together. More educated people are happier than the least educated, and money does buy happiness. Women are happier than men, but the gap is narrowing over time – as it is in the health and life-expectancy data, as women spend more time in the workplace.

Money buys happiness. But life events give a lot of happiness, such that it takes a lot of money to compensate for a loss of happiness, eg from marriage or unemployment, say. Relative things do matter, as people compare themselves to others. Individuals have a lower tendency to report themselves as happy as inequality rises.

In new work with Andrew Oswald and Sarah Stewart-Brown of the University of Warwick, we have found that diet and exercise have major impacts on well-being in the UK.** We find evidence of a link between the consumption of fruit and vegetables and high well-being. Well-being peaks at approximately seven portions per day. The pattern is robust to adjustment for a large number of demographic, social and economic variables. People who exercise a lot are happier.

The Eurobarometer survey series has been running for many years in every EU country. The raw data on individuals are made available to researchers to examine within a year or so of being collected. Data are available on life satisfaction every year since 1973. Respondents are asked: "On the whole, are you very satisfied (=4), fairly satisfied (=3), not very satisfied (=2) or not at all satisfied (=1) with the life you lead? There is a consistent pattern in these data showing that the Nordic countries are the happiest and the East Europeans the least happy; the onset of high unemployment in several countries has hit their happiness levels hard. The first chart plots happiness scores from the most recently available Eurobarometer survey conducted in November 2011, which shows that the happiest European country is Denmark. The UK ranks seventh, and the least happy country is Greece. Happy countries have lower levels of inequality, along with low unemployment and inflation, high levels of democracy and democratic participation, as well as strong welfare states and high levels of public spending, so cuts in public spending are likely to lower happiness. There is growing evidence also that increases in unemployment have much larger negative impacts on happiness than do equivalent increases in inflation. So southern European countries most impacted by rising unemployment, such as Spain and Greece, have recently seen marked declines in happiness.

The second chart plots yearly averages for the UK from the Eurobarometers. One big finding is that life satisfaction remained broadly flat – with quite a lot of variation and noise in the data from the early 1970s through the end of the 1990s. Happiness then rose sharply under the Labour government from 1997-2007 and took a hit in 2008 as the financial crisis hit. As the economy grew under the Darling boom of 2009, happiness recovered again, as the chart makes clear, only to collapse in 2011 under the Coalition.

So the conclusion from this work is that Cameron, Osborne and Clegg have made the country less happy. So both GDP and happiness are down under the Coalition. Now that's a surprise.

* www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/user-guidance/well-being/index.html

** Is psychological well-being linked to the consumption of fruit and vegetables?, Social Indicators Research (forthcoming)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Neil Pavier: Management Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you looking for your next opportunity for ...

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ACA/ACCA/ACMA qua...

Laura Norton: Project Accountant

£50,000 - £60,000: Laura Norton: Are you looking for an opportunity within a w...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?