Hamish McRae: Political success may not just be about the economy, stupid, but about happiness

Economic Life: One point often made is that US income per head has risen over the past couple of generations but people are not getting any happier as a result

Why have governments suddenly cottoned on to happiness? The cynical might observe that almost the entire developed world has suffered a decline in its wealth so politicians should try to focus on something else. It is a "we can no longer make you richer and probably are going to make you a whole heap poorer, so instead we are going to try to make you happier" proposition.

Here in the UK the shift also reflects the different personalities of the present Prime Minister and his predecessor but that is coincidental. Economists have been becoming more interested in "mental wellbeing" (the posh term for happiness) for at least a couple of decades. But it used to be a pretty unfashionable branch of the subject and it was only following the Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi report commissioned by President Sarkozy and published last year, that governments have been nudged into measuring happiness and as a result, are starting to figure out what they might do to promote it. The new project from the Office of National Statistics, launched yesterday, is the first step on this path in the UK.

But what do we already know about happiness? In Britain much of the pioneering work has been done by Professor Andrew Oswald at Warwick University, though more recently Professor Richard Layard of the LSE has also been writing a lot on the subject. Lord Layard is a Labour peer and his views tend to reflect the interventionist tendencies of the previous government, so it is maybe better to start with Prof Oswald's work.

And wonderful stuff it is. I have been looking at his presentation on Emotional Prosperity, given at the British Journal of Industrial Relations' annual lecture at the LSE last year and the graphs come from that. In 1993 he promoted an economics of happiness conference, also at the LSE. Ten people came, including the international speakers who had been asked to give presentations. Since then a lot has happened.

Start with the proposition that happiness is U-shaped, that is to say that children tend to be happier than young adults, while people in their 40s are unhappiest of all. Then things get rapidly better, with older people the happiest of all – as the first graph shows. You can see the same pattern the other way round by looking at depression: in the UK the people most likely to suffer from depression are those born in the 1950s and 1960s. Most people however do rate themselves as happy. Asked to score on a scale of one to seven, most people rank themselves as five or six and very few rank as one or two (see next graph).

If you look at the way particular life events change happiness, there are also some clear patterns. Some work by Andrew Clark looks at how people react to various events. Unsurprisingly a bereavement makes people very unhappy but actually they tend to make people unhappy in the run-up to the event, presumably because the person who dies is ill beforehand, and people subsequently bounce back quite quickly. That is as you might expect. Three more surprising results are shown in the bottom chart. First, having a child makes people less happy, not more, though the impact is not too marked. Getting divorced makes people much happier, and they get progressively more so as the years go by. And becoming unemployed is dismal, not just because of the immediate impact but because people don't seem to recover even several years after the event.

What about the relationship between wealth and happiness? One point often made is that US income per head has risen over the past couple of generations but people are not getting any happier as a result. That does seem to be true there but I am not so sure it applies so much in Europe. There may be special circumstances in the US that are inhibiting happiness that do not apply quite so much in Europe: the very short holidays, for example, or the rising insecurity associated with high personal indebtedness. In any case there is a loose association on a national level between wealth and happiness in that by and large the richer the country the happier its inhabitants.

What I personally find most interesting is that some countries are happier (or rather, report greater "life satisfaction") than they "ought" to be, given their relative wealth, while others are less happy. For example Colombians and Mexicans are among the happiest people in the world but these are only middle-income countries. Japanese and Koreans are less happy than they should be given their high GDP per head. In Africa Zimbabweans are very unhappy, Nigerians extremely cheery. And within Europe, the Danes seem exceptionally happy while the French are more miserable than they should be. And Britons? We are, as usual, middle of the pack – almost exactly where we ought to be, given our relative wealth: pretty happy but not as chipper as the Danes.

How could we become happier? Well, Andrew Oswald very much makes the point that we should be cautious and I think just about every economist would agree with that. But there is lots of detailed work going on and there are things we can learn from that. For example there is some sort of relationship between high blood pressure and happiness and not just among people – among countries too. So countries where this is a particular problem tend to be less happy than those where it is not. I suppose my difficulty with that is to figure out which way round the relationship works: it could be because people are unhappy that they have high blood pressure, not the other way round. But still, interesting.

Heart rates might be another measure of wellbeing, and a group of researchers found that for every extra £40,000 of income people's heartbeat was one beat per minute slower. That seems a rather expensive way of cutting one's heart rate, but there you go. What a heart rate might be, however, is a proxy for mental strain, so that may be a useful thing to look at.

Andrew Oswald's conclusions included the central point that we may need new measures of well-being, that we need to understand the links between physical and mental health and that economists will collaborate more with doctors and epidemiologists. And his hunch was that economists' methods of looking at happiness would become more important in public life.

Well that was last year. I think we have already moved on quite a way since then. I suppose the retort to the idea that policy-makers can increase human wellbeing would be to say that they have not performed brilliantly in their conventional economic management so why on earth should we expect them to be any use at this cutting-edge stuff? Just keep inflation down and balance the budget and leave the rest of us to figure out how to run our lives better. But whatever you think about the policy implications, as a branch of economics it is fascinating indeed, and it deserves a following wind.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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
Ireland will not find out whether gay couples have won the right to marry until Saturday afternoon
news
News
Kim Jong-un's brother Kim Jong-chol
news
News
Manchester city skyline as seen from Oldham above the streets of terraced houses in North West England on 7 April 2015.
news
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?