Where has all the happiness gone? … and how do we get it back?

The UK is a less happy place than it used to be. The proportion of the population that considered themselves ‘very happy’ has fallen from over half in the late 1950’s to a little over a third by 2006. It could well be argued that the late 50’s is not a fair benchmark as the shackles of post war austerity and rationing were finally beginning to be cast aside. However, it is clear that the deep recession of the last five years has done little to improve the mood of the nation. Moreover, it’s the numbers surrounding the flipside of happiness which are more alarming.

Depression has been termed the common cold of the 21st Century with one in four British people experiencing or expected to experience a bout of depression at some point in their lives. The Office of National Statistics estimates 10% of the UK population are depressed. Growth in the levels of depression is a worldwide phenomenon, although it is the ‘Western’ style countries, which suffer the most.

So where have we gone wrong? Even allowing for the on-going economic turbulence, the UK is a relatively wealthy country. Compare a modern household with its 1970’s counterpart and it is clear there is lots more ‘stuff’– with extensions and loft conversions built to accommodate it all. Technology that once was only imagined in science fiction is now at our fingertips and many of us can now expect to live well beyond three score years and ten. We have ‘more’, but we enjoy less. It would seem therefore that money does not buy happiness. Indeed, it may well be the dogged pursuit of money and material wealth which undermines happiness in modern society.

A recent study of MMU students revealed that ‘social life’ in whatever form that takes is their key driver of happiness. This conclusion is perhaps unsurprising but ties in with research conducted by consumer behaviourists who have found that happiness amongst adults is driven by ‘social connectness’; a connection with people and the world around us. It is not hard to see how western societies have lost this ‘connectness’. For many years now, economic conditions have forced UK workers to work long hours to ‘remain competitive on the world stage’. Parents have less time for children but worry more about their educational progress hence the inexorable rise in private tuition. A loss of social connectness has fed a boom in Internet dating sites, whilst the decline of the nuclear family has been matched by strong growth in single person households. Finally, an ageing population can lead to a proliferation of isolation and neglect.

So what is to be done? Comfort eating, retail therapy and ‘self-medication’ through alcohol have all become common and accepted ways of dealing with the uncertainty, change, stress and time poverty that goes hand in hand with modern life. However, consumption can be a case of short-term gain with long-term pain in terms of physical, mental as well as financial health.

Humans are generally good at survival and adapting to new conditions. The downside of Western life or ‘Westernisation’ has made many people look East for a solution. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness (a mix of meditation and cognitive behaviour therapy) have been adopted in the West as a way of dealing with the stresses of modern life and reconnecting with the self. Tal Ben-Shahar, author of the popular Happiness course at Harvard University advocates meditation as a way of staying in the present moment and being content with your lot, rather than striving for the next thing. Locally, connectness may be achieved through growth (or rediscovery) of knitting circles, book groups, allotment gardening, charity fundraising and sports events etc., with ‘packs’ of MAMILS (middle aged men in lycra) now a common sight on the UK’s roads. Meanwhile, social networking allows connectness with friends and family across the globe.

Richard Layard, emeritus professor at the LSE, recently called for government policy to be driven by the pursuit of happiness and reduction in ‘misery’. Meanwhile, the Government’s National Well-Being Index initiative is a welcome addition to the growing body of work on happiness and well-being. Whether it will supplant GDP as a key national indicator is very much open to question, although companies such as BMW and Rolls-Royce have adopted ‘happiness’ as a key employee metric to help ensure the long-term ‘wellbeing’ of the company.

Whilst Government economic and social policy can and should make a big difference to the health, happiness and general well-being of every UK citizen, it is more a case of the individual or the collective will of individuals in pursuing a more time rich, perhaps less material path. Research has shown that happiness for older generations equates to peace. Moreover, younger generations will state that happiness means excitement but dig a little deeper and they seek peace in whatever form that may take. This in no way suggests that everybody should reject material wealth and go off to the woods to meditate. Rather that we give more space and time to things that can bring lasting happiness.

In sum, we have to learn when ‘enough stuff is enough’. As Aristotle said ‘happiness is the meaning and purpose of life’. Perhaps we have forgotten this along the way.

Jon Prest

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