2006 May 07 Sunday
British Becoming Less Happy

Money can't buy you happiness?

Britain is less happy than in the 1950s - despite the fact that we are three times richer.

The proportion of people saying they are "very happy" has fallen from 52% in 1957 to just 36% today.

The opinion poll by GfK NOP for The Happiness Formula series on BBC Two provides the first evidence that Britain's happiness levels are declining - a trend already well documented in the United States.

Polling data from Gallup throughout the 1950s shows happiness levels above what they are today, suggesting that our extra wealth has not brought extra well-being.

It could even be making matters worse.

Americans have become less happy as well. The article also claims this pattern has been observed in other Western countries.

The British experience mirrors data from America, where social scientists have seen levels of life satisfaction gradually decline over the last quarter of a century.

In the early 1970s, 34% of those interviewed in the General Social Survey described themselves as "very happy".

By the late 1990s, the figure was 30% - a small but statistically significant drop.

These people are not behaving like homo economicus. Someone tell them to stop doing that. They are disappointing economists.

People think their neighborhoods are becoming less friendly. I suspect people are becoming more mobile and therefore know their neighbors less well.

Our poll asked whether people felt their neighbourhood was more or less friendly now than it was 10 years ago.

43% said less friendly, compared to 22% of people who said it was friendlier.

I wonder if people feel less secure than they used to and hence less happy. Also, marrieds are more happy. Has the decline in marriage boosted the number who are unhappy? See page 17 of the report below and you'll see that relationships and family are the most important factor in happiness followed by health. Parenthetically, advances in medical science therefore promise to improve happiness by contributing to the second most important factor for health. The gap between relationships and health as determinants of happiness gets progressively smaller with age. Again see page 17.

On page 22 of the report linked to below they ask what the second most important thing is in determining happiness. Two mostly financial factors "A Nice Place To Live" and "Money And Financial Situation" come close to relationships in importance. This is an argument against immigrant-driven population growth that drives up the cost of housing and raises crime rates.

You can download the full report as a 1 meg PDF file. Some interesting facts emerge: "Very Happy" has an age peak between 25-34 of 38% and then a decline to 30% at 45-54 and then a rise to 41% at 55-64. They have happiness by social classes AB, C1, C2, and DE. Anyone know what those mean? C1 has the highest happiness rating.

On page 72 if we are to believe the results men have more close friends they speak to regularly than do women. I wouldn't have expected that.

On page 77 people report their neighborhoods as becoming less friendly. Does this attitude measure a real change in crime rates or in influxes of immigrants? Or higher mobility and therefore less longer term friendships in neighborhoods? Or do people have distorted views of a rosier past that never existed?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 May 07 02:43 PM  Human Nature

Pearsall Helms said at May 7, 2006 7:05 PM:

They have happiness by social classes AB, C1, C2, and DE. Anyone know what those mean? C1 has the highest happiness rating.

See here. C1 is the lower middle-class (essentially).

John S Bolton said at May 8, 2006 1:10 AM:

An Australian study found:
The survey also connected electorates with high ethnic diversity to low personal wellbeing. The research did not, therefore, support the orthodox idea that we are enriched in our personal lives by multicultural diversity. Instead, the survey concluded that,

ethnic diversity is far higher within the low EDs. They have a significantly higher proportion of people who speak a language other than English and have a religion other than Christianity. While this might be expected if the low EDs simply represented enclaves of low paid and educated migrants, this is not the case. As has been seen, the high and low divisions do not differ in terms of income, rate of employment, or levels of education, except for the very small minority who did not go to school. Thus, the picture that emerges is that the low EDs are more ethnically diverse but not more socio-economically disadvantaged.
This fits with the observations in the posting. ED means electoral district.

John S Bolton said at May 8, 2006 1:22 AM:

This is from Robert A. Cummins of Deakin U. Low ED means respndents reported lower well-being in that electoral district.

Ontogen said at May 8, 2006 1:54 AM:

Different ethnicities may vary substantially in their reported well-being. Perceiving one's group to be on the bottom of the hierarchy probably has a negative influence on perceived well-being, as do much lower rates of education. Ethnic demographic-change may explain a significant amount of the change the authors are seeing.

Rick Darby said at May 8, 2006 6:34 AM:

These trends suggest that the standard current values do not really make people happier.

Happiness does not grow from having a larger house if it's on a tiny lot three feet from the houses next door; a fancier car if you spend twice as much time in it because of traffic density; travel to distant places if you get there to find them jam-packed with other tourists. In short, "growth" (especially population growth) decreases happiness, not increases it.

The same can be said about most of the other desiderata of modern life: working out in health clubs, eating dinner in restaurants instead of at home, diversity, everyone getting a (meaningless) college degree, cell phones.

It is trite to say it, but happiness comes as a by-product of stimulating interaction with people and ideas; a few good friends rather than a Rolodex full of acquaintances; and a spiritual life rather than power over others.

Derek Copold said at May 8, 2006 11:18 AM:

I think Randall nailed it when he pointed to falling marriage rates. A good marriage makes your life far more happy, even though it requires more work. Or, better, because it IS such a challenge.

Jorge D.C. said at May 8, 2006 6:25 PM:

Britain is less happy than in the 1950s - despite the fact that we are three times richer.

I will argue that the powerful psychological effects of winning WWII still lingered in 1957 (and several years after) in Britain and the rest of the Anglosphere. They had civilizational confidence, a tremendous sense of having done the right thing, and the great feeling of being pushed to the brink and emerging victorious.

The Cold War was a definitely a downer. But today we cannot imagine the euphoric relief felt by the survivors and winners of that war. On a deep level they were still feeling very lucky to be alive and free.

Robert Hume said at May 9, 2006 1:59 PM:

I've spent some time in Britain and I think it is correct that men have more close friends there than here in the US. A major element is that the pub is still a strong institution; men go there and drink with their friends regularly. In the US suburbanization/mobility has killed the local bar. Some suburbanization has, of course, been the result of minorities taking over central cities since early in the century.

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