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.
Happiness was founded in 2010 by Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan and
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!