Richer yet no happier, unmarried yet fewer sexual partners – survey reveals the truth about Britons

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The Independent Online

People are leading longer and wealthier lives than they were 35 years ago but are oddly no more content, according to the most thorough analysis of the state of Britain today.

Modern Britons have enjoyed a huge increase in income since the early 1970s, but the extra money has done little to make them feel any happier with their standard of living, said the Office for National Statistics' annual review of social trends.

The 234-page report, chronicled each year, gives a snapshot of almost every aspect of contemporary life, from the long-term decline in smoking (it plummeted by about half between 1974 and 2006), to how many fresh green vegetables we eat (just over 200 grammes a week each).

This year, statisticians set out to measure "societal well-being", arguing that life satisfaction was the "ultimate performance indicator" for a modern society. But they conclude that finding any answer "is not going to be easy", musing that, half a century later, academics are still wrangling over whether we really had it so good in the 1950s.

The lack of impact that an increase in income has had on Britons' levels of contentment was cited by the social trends experts as an example of the "Easterlin Paradox", whereby the strength of the relationship between income and reported levels of happiness declines rapidly after a certain Gross Domestic Product is reached.

"In the UK, as in the United States and many other countries, life satisfaction overall has levelled off, despite increasing real economic wealth," they said.

What the report does find is that, though aware of climate change, many people still find it hard to enact the changes they know to be necessary; that the number of people getting married is going down, while the number of cohabiting couples – and divorcing couples – is shooting up; and that people who choose multiple sexual partners – or at least those who admitted to it – are still very much in the minority.

The state of the nation

Happiness

Soaring national prosperity over the past 35 years has done nothing to make Britons happier. Income per head might have more than doubled in real terms since 1971, yet according to data collected each year since 1973, the proportion of people satisfied with their standard of living has remained almost unchanged, with about 86 per cent of Britons fairly or very satisfied with their lives.

Despite record living standards, life expectancy, household wealth, domestic spending and the rest, one in seven of us is either unsure or unsatisfied with his or her lot. Oddly, while 78 per cent of over-60s are satisfied with their prospects for their future financial security, only half of 16- to 21-year-olds feel happy with their prospects for the future.

Families

The institution of marriage is under pressure, but family ties remain important. The number of couples tying the knot fell from 480,000 in 1972 to 284,000 in 2005, while the number of divorces rose from 125,000 in 1972 to 155,000 in 2005. One in four births was outside marriage in 1988, up to 43 per cent by 2006. Single-parent families made up nearly one in four households with children in 2007, sharply up from 1971. There were 102,000 teen pregnancies in 2005, more than 300 among under-14s.

Environment

The increase in the number of people living alone has seen home energy consumption soar. While energy use per household has fallen, the proportion of people living on their own has increased from 18 per cent to 29 per cent since 1971. Twenty-eight per cent of people said they didn't believe their behaviour contributed to climate change; a similar number said the environment was a low priority. However, most people said they were recycling more, wasting less food, and reducing use of water.

Sport/Lifestyle

While 12 per cent of our household spending goes on leisure and culture, it doesn't mean we are any healthier. Nearly a third of adults took no part in sport, nearly half blaming their health, while fewer than a third of men and women ate the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Around 23 million people gambled in 2006 and 2007, up by one million since 1999. More than half of people said they gave money to charity at least once a month. One survey found 54 per cent of people belonged to a religion, but another found less than 40 per cent believe in God.

Sex

Nearly half of 16- to 19-year-olds said they had not had a sexual partner in the past year, while most other adults had slept with just one person in the past 12 months. Even among 20- to 24-year-olds, only 14 per cent of men and 3 per cent of women said they had slept with more than one person in the past year.

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