Happiness - a review of the decade

What are the highlights for you?

As we reach the end of the second decade of the 20th Century, it seems a good time to look back at what has happened in that time in relation to happiness, resilience and wellbeing.


Unfortunately, I don’t have the knowledge, expertise or time to write a comprehensive review.  So here are a few thoughts, and maybe it’ll prompt others to add theirs, correct my mistakes and fill in the gaps.


We have to go back to the early years of the century, though, for the growth in interest in happiness and wellbeing.  It perhaps started with Martin Seligman and the positive psychology movement and was taken up by the likes of Lord Richard Layard, the New Economics Foundation and others.  At the same time work was going on internationally, including by the OECD.  The then Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, was also a supporter of the idea, and there were moves to embed consideration of happiness and wellbeing in policy development.


The decade started with some hope, in that David Cameron, before entering government, had indicated an intention to base policy more on wellbeing.  If that happened, it was not apparent to me.  Instead, (in my view) policies were followed which negatively affected many people’s wellbeing, including the poor, sick, disabled, people on benefits and immigrants.


Despite that, the ONS’s regular monitoring of wellbeing, an initiative which has persevered, has shown an improvement over time, with life satisfaction having improved by 3.4% between 2013 and 2019 (from 7.46 out of 10 to 7.71), while anxiety measures improved by 5.3% over the same time period (reducing from 3.03 to 2.87).  Wellbeing actually rose in the year following the EU referendum.  So was austerity and more recent political upheaval as bad as I think?


There are also other regular surveys such as the UN World Happiness Report.


Action for Happiness was founded in 2010 by Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan and Anthony Seldon.


The ‘What Works Centre for Wellbeing’ was launched in 2014 and formally recognised in 2015.


I have been keeping a record of key news items on health and wellbeing policy since 2012, and it is interesting to review those, though I’m not sure it represents an accurate picture of what has been happening ‘under the surface’.


So what have we learnt?  Well, being happy is associated with living longer.  Oh, no it isn’t.  Oh yes it is (this is pantomime season after all).  Children’s life satisfaction seems to be lower than in most comparable countries, and girls and young women seem to have particular problems.  Higher salaries are not associated with higher life satisfaction, beyond a certain point.  Happiness depends more on relationships and health than it does on money.  Making purchases that match your personality make you happier.  There was an association between healthy eating and happiness.  And drinking alcohol makes you happier in the short, but not the long term.  So happy New Year to you.


For a more accurate summary of what the research tells us, see the What Works Centre for Wellbeing spreadsheet which provides simple statements across a range of topic areas.


So what else has changed?


There have been some positive changes in being able to talk about mental health, with presumably, a reduction in stigma, much aided by the involvement of celebrity and high profile figures.  (The success of this is perhaps indicated by this columnist suggesting that time should be up for talking about mental health – though she does suggest more needs to be done to actually help people, rather than just talk.)


I was recently doing some clearing at home and came across an Independent on Sunday review magazine, focussing on happiness.  I’d put it aside to read some time.  It was from January 2007 (yes, I know, I know).  Most of the advice has not changed since then, such as how relationships, religion, being higher in the hierarchy at work, avoiding unemployment and giving are associated with more happiness (some of the advice was more tongue in cheek such as to eat more chocolate and move to Australia).


One things that encapsulates a lot of the advice and has proved to be very enduring, are the five ways to wellbeing (connect, be active, take notice, keep learning, give).  They were produced by the New Economics Foundation in 2008, commissioned by the government’s Foresight project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing.


Of course there’s much, much more than this.  But I better get on.  I’ve got a meal to prepare for New Year’s Eve tonight, with plenty of healthy vegetables, chocolate and alcohol, to consume with my wife – so that should tick a few boxes, for short term happiness at any rate.


Hope you have a very Happy New Year!

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