Happiness – academic research becomes government policy

Happiness – academic research becomes government policy

Happy land: some reasons to be cheerful in England

ê_Ôš First government survey measures contentment

ê_Ôš Less skilled report more negative emotions

Tania Branigan, political correspondent

Saturday August 4, 2007

The Guardian

It’s official: most of us are happy. Life satisfaction in England averages 7.3 out of 10, according to the first government measure of how we view our lives.

Ministers are using the contentment of citizens to assess how well the country is faring, alongside existing indicators such as productivity and life expectancy.

Almost half of the 3,600 respondents in a government survey rated their overall life satisfaction as seven or eight out of 10. But the evidence revealed big disparities in levels of contentment. Those in unskilled jobs, on a state pension or the unemployed had an average rating of 6.7 and were more likely to have regularly experienced negative emotions such as depression, loneliness or not feeling safe. In comparison, professionals averaged 7.6 and were more likely to have regularly felt happy, energised or engaged.

Satisfaction in different areas of life also varied widely. While over 85% of those questioned were satisfied with their relationships, less than 65% were satisfied with feeling part of a community.

Although the government describes the measures as provisional, it has included them in its set of sustainable development indicators, used to review progress and highlight challenges.

“It is important that people can see for themselves where we as a country are getting things right or where we all need to do more or do things differently,” said the environment minister, Phil Woolas. “What has perhaps been missing from these indicators in the past has been information on how people are affected by where they live, their work, and their daily lives.”

The research marks the moment at which the politics of happiness has left the realm of academic debate and become government policy. “Britain is the first developed country to produce an official indicator of subjective wellbeing,” said Nic Marks, founder of the Centre for Wellbeing at the New Economics Foundation.

Happiness has come under increasing scrutiny because life satisfaction across the developed world has barely changed over the last half-century, despite huge increases in prosperity.

For Lord Layard, the LSE economist who has pioneered work on satisfaction, the new indicator reflects and reinforces changing priorities. “I think we will find that policy takes increasing interest in issues that affect people’s value systems or social or community relations,” he argues. Ministers are not about to set targets for national happiness, but breaking down the headline figures to find the “real pockets of misery” and monitoring how contentment changes can offer valuable insights. There is an increasingly widespread acceptance that quality of life is a valid political goal. David Cameron said last year that governments should focus on “GWB – general wellbeing” – as well as GDP.

But Helen Johns, an environmental economist, questions whether national measures are sensitive enough to inform decision making. “Measures of overall life satisfaction show no shift in response to any policy or social trend,” she argued. The increase in family breakdown does not seem to have caused a drop in measured happiness. The fall in working hours does not appear to have increased it.

Research suggests personal relationships and meaningful activity make people happier than extra income.

Sheila Lawlor, director of the rightwing thinktank Politeia, suggests focusing on happiness is not only a pointless distraction from clear public goals which improve people’s lives but an unwelcome intrusion. “There is a limit to what governments can and should do,” she said.

11% of those in social grade E feel lonely – 24% feel like “everything was an effort”.

61% of people ‘spend time with family” every day.

92% of those aged 65 and over were happy with their ‘standard of living” – compared to the overall average of 85%.

73% of people in England rate their satisfaction with life as seven or more out of 10.

7.6 The average happiness rating given by those in social classes A or B – ie doctors, accountants or teachers.

6.7 The average happiness rating given by those in social class E – casual labourers and unemployed people.