Happiness should be part of any manifesto

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The Independent Online
Feeling glum this Christmas? Worried about job security? Wish you'd won £18 million on the lottery? Or maybe, like the Beatles, you think that money can't buy you love?

One of the strangest things about British economic and political life in recent months has been the way in which the alleged absence of a "feel-good" factor has become accepted fact without any reference to the academic research about what makes people feel happy. So, anyone seeking to explain the Government's unpopularity despite what is really a very solid economic recovery tends to talk in terms of the non-recovery in house prices, or middle-class job insecurity, or some opinion survey put together by market researchers stopping people in the street.

In fact, there is a wealth of work accumulated over 30 years or more on what affects happiness. Most of this has been done in the United States, but some of the most interesting current work is happening here in Britain - in particular, the research at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, which is joining with the likes of Sheffield University to link economists with psychologists. The whole area of research is enormous, but it is possible to draw some headline conclusions. Here are five.

First, we do not seem to be getting any happier, or if we are, we will not admit to it. In the past 20 years there has been no reported increase in happiness in either Europe or the US. This seems a little odd because this seems to conflict with the general principle that if people get richer, they also tend to become happier or - to employ a more specific title - experience higher social well-being, or SWB.

Europe has become much richer in the past two decades (the rise in living standards in the US has been less marked) but has not seen much of a rise in SWB. In the US, where there is more data, from 1946 right through to 1978, a period when living standards rose greatly, people would not admit to being any happier. Each year, when the surveys were taken, richer people said that they were happy and poor people said they were not, but there was no overall increase in the happiness of either group. Indeed, there is some evidence of a downward drift in happiness in all but the poorest 25 per cent.

This leads to a second conclusion: that absolute wealth is less important to happiness than relative wealth. If you compare different countries, you arrive at a similar conclusion. Japan is not much happier than India and in some ways Latin American countries are happier than European ones.

There does not seem to be any simple answer, but it may be that things like status and power, which are relative within a society but which also go with wealth, are more important than wealth itself. It may also be that in the "rich" world at least, living standards have reached a level that most people find sufficiently satisfying that any increase in happiness must come in other ways.

A third conclusion is that unemployed people are very unhappy indeed. So the rise in unemployment in Europe - reversing the pattern of the Fifties and Sixties, when the US had higher unemployment than Europe - has been very damaging to the happiness of many people (remember that the number of people passing through a period of unemployment is much higher than the the actual number on the register at any one time).

This "unhappiness gap" between those in jobs and those not in them has not changed in Europe since the Seventies.

The fourth conclusion is that family, marriage and religion are enormously important in determining SWB. Marriage actually increases SWB - though having children does not necessarily seem to bring great benefits in itself: "dinkies" (double-income, no kids) seem to manage very well. As for religion, while it seems clear that people who are religious tend to be happier than those who are not, it is hard to tell whether happy people simply tend to be believers.

But this importance of what might be called a conventional lifestyle raises serious questions about the social changes that have been taking place during the Seventies and Eighties. If fewer people are chosing to get married or to go to religious worship, and more people are getting divorced, the proportion of people in the the country who are acting in a way which is liable to make them more miserable inevitably rises. So it is not just rising unemployment that makes us unhappier; it is also our exploration of the new social freedoms we have acquired.

There is another important thing that affects happiness: people's age. Happiness is U-shaped. Or rather, unhappiness is U-shaped, for it seems that people gradually get happier until they reach their thirties and then gradually become less happy. Around 36, on balance, is apparently the ideal age - just a little younger than the median age of readers of this newspaper.

So school is not the happiest time of one's life ... and maybe Victor Meldrew has a point after all.

All this information raises the inevitable question: what do we do with it? The pursuit of happiness was one of the aims of founding fathers of the US, as set out in the Declaration of Independence. This is not just a narrow political issue of how politicians should encourage greater happiness in order to get themselves elected. There is surely something much bigger. If we know quite a lot about what makes people happy, surely it is both legitimate and possible to nudge society in a direction that will enable more people to do so.

There may not be much that can be done about unhappiness rising with age, though we should be aware, as the balance of the population in all developed countries becomes older, that there is a danger that we will all become more miserable. But there are other areas where policies are relevant. Most obviously, anything that can be done to encourage people who want to work in a particular area would have an enormous impact on the happiness of a lot of people.

We should, perhaps, therefore welcome any rise in employment that is taking place at the moment, rather than sneer at the quality of some of the jobs that are being created. And we should worry about the rising divorce rate not for any moral or even economic reason, but because people are clearly becoming less happy.

Above all, we should realise that during periods of very rapid social and economic transformation such as we are experiencing now, the very pace of change will be unsettling for many people. And if as a result they kick the Government, maybe that is fairer than kicking the cat.