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)

News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
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

Trainee / Experienced Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Soho

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40000: SThree: As a Recruitment Consultant, y...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Quantitative Risk Manager

Up to £80000: Saxton Leigh: My client, a large commodities broker, is looking ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits