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It isn’t the economy, Stupid

7 Jun

Richard LayardAccording to Richard Layard, interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme a couple of weeks ago (24 May), Bill Clinton was wrong. The economy isn’t what matters most to people when they vote. ‘We know, going back to 1970, what determines why governments get elected all over the world,’ Layard said. ‘People are satisfied with their lives for reasons other than the economy.’

I can’t imagine why I haven’t written about Layard before in this blog. An emeritus professor of economics at the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE, and also a member of the House of Lords, he was one of the first people in the UK to discuss the policy implications of research into happiness. In his bio on the CEP website we’re told that, ‘Since the 1970s he has urged fellow economists to return to the 18th and 19th century idea that public policy should maximise a social welfare function depending on the distribution of happiness’ (http://cep.lse.ac.uk/_new/staff/person.asp?id=970). Layard’s 2005 book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science has been translated into twenty languages, and he’s one of the co-editors of the UN’s World Happiness Reports (this blog, 18 April ).

Layard believes that relative income has a significant effect on happiness levels, but he doesn’t regard this as the most crucial factor when people are making up their minds how to vote. Mental and physical health, followed by relationships at home, at work and in the community, are what people care about most. After that they begin to think about their income. A government is under a moral obligation to give people what matters to them, he told the Today interviewer – and it’s also in the government’s own interests to do this, as it will help it to get re-elected.

‘Mental health should be a top priority when it comes to NHS spending,’ Layard said. He wants an extra £4 billion to be spent on it, in addition to what’s currently being promised in the NHS spending review. This represents a 6% increase in real terms over the next five years; it would help break the logjam whereby mental health always lags way behind physical health in NHS spending plans. He also thinks that there should be a separate budget for mental health within the overall NHS budget.

In line with this thinking, Layard would like to see much more emphasis placed on mental health issues in schools. In South Australia, he told us, there are teachers who are specially trained to give classes in life skills, and that’s something we need in the UK as well. Plus an awareness of well-being should be built into training courses for all of our teachers.

Apprenticeships and increased spending on further education are among the items which Layard supports for the members of the post-school generation who are not going on to university: ‘they need to see a clear path ahead of them in life.’ And for all of us social connections are of course enormously  important. ‘Loneliness is a huge problem nowadays’, he said; and so the UK government needs to restore the cuts to youth clubs, and to centres for children and old people.

None of this is prohibitively expensive, Layard would argue. It’s more a question of governments getting their priorities right. And although all of these measures would undoubtedly cost money, I absolutely take his point that when it comes to cultivating well-being we need to concentrate more on social spending and less on enhancing personal incomes. The consistent top ranking of Scandinavian countries in the world happiness statistics, if nothing else, hammers home this point.

Layard is convinced that people will vote for governments which follow the course he’s recommending, and give people what matters to them. I can only hope – fervently – that he’s right about this.

 

 

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Finland, Brexit, Trump … and the joys of reading

18 Apr

woman-reading-at-a-dressing-table-interieur-nice-1919In the UN’s World Happiness Report for 2019, published in March, Finland heads the field for the second year running. The UK has risen five places, from 19th to 15th – once again contradicting the view that no sane person can possibly be happy while contemplating Brexit. And the US has dropped from 18th to 19th, validating the equally entrenched conviction that Americans are bound to be getting more miserable under Donald Trump. 

The happiness report bases its rankings on six variables: income and GDP per capita; the freedom to make life choices; trust in government and perceptions of corruption; healthy life expectancy; social support; and generosity. As in previous years, the last 50 places in the list of 156 nations are mostly occupied by African and Asian countries. South Sudan, devastated by years of civil war, is at the bottom. Yemen, equally afflicted, is at 151. Eastern Europe is represented by Albania, at 107, and Ukraine, at 133. And the one South American country to appear in the last 50 is of course strife-torn Venezuela, at 108.

As usual Scandinavian countries dominate the top ten. Denmark is 2nd, Norway 3rd, and Iceland 4th. Ireland and Germany are just below the UK, at 16 and 17. And the two countries which always surprise us by being apparently less happy than Britain are still ranked lower: France is at 24 and Italy at 36. 

(For the full list, see https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2019/changing-world-happiness/). 

I’ve already rejected the notion  (this blog, 9 June 2018) that climate considerations are the mainspring of Scandinavian happiness. It still seems to me much more likely that relative prosperity and economic equality – involving high taxes and adequate safety nets provided by the state – are the key to 21st century happiness. But as Rachel Kelly points out in The Observer (24 March) money isn’t everything. The report also recognises that freedom, generosity, and support from social networks all make a difference. 

This may give rise to a belief in the possibility of personal change. Kelly is sure that individual happiness levels aren’t fixed. Her own experience of combating major depressive episodes has convinced her that we all have an ability to cultivate happiness.  She doesn’t want to rule out medication and cognitive behavioural therapy, the NHS’s main approaches to the treatment of mental illness. These do have a part to play, she says. But she also thinks that a sense of one’s own agency is very important. 

‘I have found that while thinking often makes me sad, doing rarely does. A sense of my own autonomy was essential to getting better. .. Simple daily acts such as paying proper attention when someone talks to you can transform how generous we are to others – and how happy we feel. Equally, there is much that we can do to increase our sense of social support: even light-touch socialising can boost our mood.’

Kelly’s strategies for remaining calm and well include bibliotherapy – the use of planned reading programmes to help people overcome anxiety and emotional disorders. This technique, I learn, has been employed in hospitals since the early years of the twentieth century.  It can be deeply serious. According to The Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science (https://www.abc-clio.com/ODLIS/odlis_b.aspx), Ideally, the process occurs in three phases: personal identification of the reader with a particular character in the recommended work, resulting in psychological catharsis, which leads to rational insight concerning the relevance of the solution suggested in the text to the reader’s own experience. Assistance of a trained psychotherapist is advised.’ 

For most of us, however, it may be enough just to pick up a book when we’re feeling sad or stressed, and let our engagement with a world beyond our own lead us away from anguish. Personally I find it a very effective way of  soothing the mind. And who knows? – it may even help us to cope a bit better with Brexit. 

For earlier posts on Finland and on Brexit, see 9 June 2018; and 13 and 12 January 2019, 10 October 2018, and 4 October, 2017. 

 

 

 

 

When we’re 64

2 Mar

Men and women in the UK are still officially at their happiest when they reach the fabled age of 70 – and from 64 onward they’re gradually building up to it. A study of the Office for National Statistics’ wellbeing data for the years 2010-17 (the entire input since the surveys began) has confirmed what the individual annual reports have already indicated (see this blog, Feb 2016 ): it’s worth hanging in there till you’re in your late 60s, because for most people life gets so much better then.  With any luck the kids have left home,  you’re probably working fewer hours,  you need less money, and you may even have learnt a thing or two about how to live. 

old lady southwark

David Cameron, when he introduced the happiness surveys in 2010, remarked, ‘There’s more to life than money. It’s time we focussed not just on GDP but on GWB – general wellbeing.’

Easy to say that, of course, when you’re so wealthy you can afford to shell out for a glorified shed a sum (£25,000) which exceeds many people’s annual income. George Bangham – a policy analyst with the Resolution Foundation, the thinktank which carried out the study – provides a useful corrective. The quest for wellbeing, he says, ‘should complement, rather than replace, priorities such as income redistribution, better jobs and secure housing. The data shows that there’s more to life than a country’s GDP, but that the employment and income trends that lie behind our economy can make a big difference to our wellbeing too.’  (Guardian, 13 Feb 2019)

OR as Aristotle told us over two thousand years ago (this blog, February 2019), ‘flourishing’, or eudaimonia, requires an effort of the human will –  and it isn’t necessarily easy to achieve it if you haven’t got sufficient money or power. 

Happy old year

12 Jan

2019 is well under way, and it’s high time I reported on the UK happiness stats for April 2017 to March 2018, which were published last September by the Office of National Statistics. There’s nothing to get hugely excited about, however. The averages remain the same as the ones for 2017/16. ‘How happy yesterday?’ stays at 7.5, ‘how anxious’ is at 2.9, life satisfaction 7.7 and ‘things you do in your life worthwhile’ is at 7.9.

Northern Ireland remains the happiest of the countries making up the UK, in spite of having no sitting parliament and being in the front line of political skirmishing for quite some time now. And Rushmoor in Hampshire has overtaken Craven in North Yorkshire as our happiest district – ialdershot buddhist centrets ‘happy yesterday?’ rating shot up from 7.8 to 8.4. One of the towns in the Rushmoor district is Aldershot, which has a large training camp on its fringes and advertises itself as ‘the Home of the British Army’. It seems laughable to some of us that  it should be the happiest town in Britain, but that’s just prejudice – I have to admit that I’ve never actually been there. It’s an affluent area, and that probably helps. But more intriguing is the information that Aldershot has the largest Nepalese population and the largest Buddhist community in the UK. Surely that in itself contributes to its happiness quotient?

So … by the end of March 2018 our Brexit woes Aldershotmilitarytown.jpghadn’t apparently had any impact at all on our happiness scores. We do have to bear in mind of course that the majority of people in the UK voted in favour of Brexit, so by no means everyone is pissed off by it (something that we Remainers are often inclined to forget – democracy is OK as long as it’s going your way). Still, a lot has happened in the last nine months, so we’ll just have to wait to see what the crop of statistics for 2019 yields. 

Scandinavian happiness: never mind the cold, feel the equality

9 Jun

Over the last year there’s been a jostling for Finland winter 2position among the front-runners in the international happiness stakes. According to the 2018 World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations, the first four places are still occupied by Scandinavian countries. But Finland has edged into the lead, pushing Norway – last year’s winner – into second place. The third slot goes to Denmark, while Iceland is fourth. Elsewhere, the US has slipped to number 18, while the position of the UK remains unchanged at 19, behind Australia (10) and Germany (15), but ahead of France (23), Italy (47), and Greece (79).

The bottom of the table is still dominated by Asian and African countries. They occupy all but four of the last 50 places, out of a total of 156, joined only by Albania, Ukraine, Georgia and Haiti. Syria, unsurprisingly, comes in at no.150, while India is at 133. China, at 79, and Pakistan, at 80, seem to be doing much better than their democratic neighbour.

Overall, these figures suggest that there may be something very first world about the values being tested in happiness surveys; or alternatively – and more straightforwardly – that a certain level of material comfort is vital for happiness.  The latter conclusion seems plausible. The key variables being examined in the report, compiled by the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, are income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity. The first three, at least, are probably not compatible with high levels of poverty.

But there again, money isn’t everything. Gross Domestic Product per capita in Finland is lower than in other Scandinavian countries, and much lower than that of the US. And Finland has only recently emerged from a 10-year economic depression, linked to the collapse of its signature company Nokia and made worse by the 2008 financial crisis.

Things have picked up recently, thanks to the success of other tech companies such as the games studio Supercell. And Nokia has by no means disappeared: it’s still Finland’s largest employer, followed by escalator manufacturer Kone. The economy is in reasonable shape, then; but it hasn’t recovered from the 2008 debacle as quickly as the UK and US economies (see The Observer 18 March, Business Leader). So why are the Finns apparently much happier than the Brits and Americans?

It’s the equality, most commentators would argue. Finland has a state education system that caters for all its children without the need for selective or private schooling. The health service and welfare programme remain for the time being universal. And taxes are seen in Finland as an investment in quality of life, not as a crime against humanity.

The picture isn’t completely rosy, however. As in other countries, the economic depression in Finland saw a rise in support for far-right views. The party which dubs itself True Finns has recently elected an anti-immigrant hardliner as its leader. And the country has one of the most rapidly ageing populations in Europe, which has prompted the conservatives who control the coalition government to embark on a series of healthcare cuts. In the future some Finns may feel the need to resort to private medicine.  And this may mean that Finland doesn’t retain its position at the top of the happiness table.

But at the moment Finland doesn’t just have the happiest population in the world, it also has the happiest immigrants. For the first time the UN report examined the happiness levels of immigrants in each country, and Finland got the top score here as well. In fact, the ten happiest countries in the overall rankings also occupied ten of the top eleven spots in the ranking of immigrant happiness. Which suggests that happiness isn’t bound up with our genetic and cultural inheritance, but rather with the quality of life we enjoy in the country where we’re living.

Or maybe it’s the cold. Some pundits have suggested that Scandinavians always do well in happiness surveys because their climate has made them more resilient and more neighbourly. To combat harsh conditions they’re forced to come together and help each other. This spirit of co-operation feeds into the national psyche and so into state policies.

I’m inclined to think that such climatic determinism is nonsense. Sunshine rather than snow is usually credited with being the fount of all happiness, and speaking for myself I know that my mood lightens instantaneously when the sun comes out. But it’s clearly not crucial. Italy, which for a lot of British people is the very image of a carefree sun-kissed nation, always comes low down among European countries in the happiness tables. Many of the Italians I talk to personally moan a lot about their lives and their prospects. Not so the Finns, Danes and Norwegians. It could be the cold that makes them upbeat, I suppose – but it seems much more likely that equality is the really important factor when it comes to Scandinavian happiness.

More and more satisfied … unless you’re in Wolverhampton

4 Oct

 

uk happinessThe UK’s Office for National Statistics has just published the well-being figures for  April 2016/March 2017, based on responses to the ‘life-satisfaction’ and ‘happy or anxious?’ questions I’ve been discussing in recent blogs. Life satisfaction, we’re told, is at its highest level since 2011, when the questions were first included in the Integrated Household Survey. It’s gone up to 7.7 out of 10, compared with 7.6 in the previous year.

So during a period when the UK began grappling with the fallout from the 2016 Brexit vote, people apparently felt more rather than less satisfied with their lives. They were also a little bit happier. Scores under this heading had levelled off between 2015 and 2016 – having risen steadily in earlier years – but now they’re up from 7.48 to 7.51. We’re apparently just as anxious as we were in the previous year, however  – the average rating here was 2.9 out of 10. And  we’re no more inclined to view what we do in our lives as worthwhile: here the score remains static at 7.9.      UKMap

Many of us feel that we’ve being going through a good deal of political uncertainty recently. But the ONS points out that in spite of this, employment rates rose during the period covered by the report, and in other surveys respondents have reported an improvement in their financial situations. This could be the reason for the increased sense of life satisfaction.

As usual the media are fascinated by the regional variations in these survey results. Of all the countries making up the UK, Northern Ireland, as in previous years, recorded the best average ratings across all four measures. And when you get down to local authority districts, Craven in the Yorkshire Dales emerged as the happiest area in Britain, and also had the highest levels of life satisfaction and the lowest anxiety levels. Wolverhampton, sadly, remained the least satisfied of all our districts.

Happy in the centre of your being?

8 Sep

How happy did you feel yesterday?  Conversely, how anxious did you feel yesterday? These two questions, posed by the Office for National Statistics in its annual population survey, are a kind of thermometer employed by the ONS to check the British population’s emotional temperature. We’re not being asked how much pleasure or pain we experienced yesterday, or how many of our desires we managed to satisfy. Just how happy or anxious we felt. 

Dartmoor pic

Most people will have little difficulty in recognising anxiety, but it’s hard to predict how respondents are going to interpret the word ‘happy’. The underlying implication is that feeling happy is the opposite of feeling anxious, and if we respond in that vein, then as Daniel Haybron suggests (‘Happiness and its Discontents’, New York Times 13 April, 2014), we’re telling  the ONS about our emotional well-being. How ‘untroubled, confident, comfortable in our own skins’ were we feeling yesterday? In other words, what was our overall emotional condition? ‘To be happy,’ writes Haybron, ‘is to inhabit a favourable emotional state.’

Pleasure and pain aren’t the issue here. We may have had tremendous fun yesterday – an enjoyable meal, some great sex. Or we may have had some unpleasant experiences, like a bout of toothache, or an argument with a colleague. But did these episodes affect our basic feelings?  Perhaps we felt anxious in spite of the sex, or happy in spite of the toothache. Pleasure and pain aren’t necessarily tied into our emotional well-being, and it’s the latter that the ONS is trying to gauge.

“‘I have a headache.’ Well, don’t say, ‘Oh no!’ ‘I’ve got earache.’  Again, don’t say, ‘Oh no!’ I’m not suggesting that you’re not allowed to groan, just that you shouldn’t groan in the centre of your being.” This is a quote from the Discourses of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (1.18.19). How you’re feeling in the centre of your being is what interests this thinker, and it’s probably what the ‘happy’ and ‘anxious’ queries are getting at too.

Haybron thinks that it’s worth posing these questions because ‘our emotional conditions may provide the single best indicator of how, in general, our lives are going.’ So the ONS gets some useful data from our answers. But thinking about these things may be good for us as well, for the respondents as well as the questioners. Instead of scrutinising the day’s events, one by one, we should try looking at the bigger picture. Does the way we are living make sense? ‘Often, the signals of the emotional self can set us on the path to better ways of living – and a happiness worthy of the name.’

Considering these questions doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the ingredients which contribute to our emotional well-being. To think about these we probably need to go back to the theories which I’ve discussed in earlier blogs. According to Haybron, as well as physical needs – food, clothing shelter – we also have needs as emotional beings. ‘Among the most important sources of happiness are: a sense of security, a good outlook, autonomy or control over our lives, good relationships, and skilled and meaningful activity. If you’re unhappy, then there’s a good chance that it’s for want of something on this list.’

Aha, there’s a definite sighting of a theory here – it’s the objective list idea (this blog, 20 October, 2016). I’m keen on this strategy myself, so I’m not going to disagree. If only someone could tell me how to acquire the good outlook, then I might be as happy as Larry. This simile, I discover from the internet, may have its origins in the Cornish and later Australian expression ‘happy as a larrikin’.  So give me a better outlook, and I might be as happy as a rowdy and careless young person who’s always larking about. Or possibly … as happy as someone who’s hugging a menhir on Dartmoor, which is what I’m doing in the picture above.