When it comes to happiness, the poets and songwriters were right

December 30, 2016 Providence Health Team

Misery, it turns out, really does love company.

Also, money can’t buy you love.

These poetic findings emerge from a new British report on well-being, presented to a national conference by a team of researchers led by Lord Richard Layard, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics.

As the authors put it succinctly, “most human misery is due not to economic factors but to failed relationships and physical and mental illness.” They say eliminating depression and anxiety would reduce misery by 20 percent, while eliminating poverty would reduce it just 5 percent.

Of course, neither of these ambitions – eliminating depression or eliminating poverty – is within reach. But the report can give policymakers some ideas about where to focus their energies first.

The findings, said Layard, suggest that government should reorient itself to focus on improving well-being, rather than raising levels of wealth.

“In the past, the state has successively taken on poverty, unemployment, education and physical health,” he said. “But equally important now are domestic violence, alcoholism, depression and anxiety conditions, alienated youth, exam-mania and much else. These should become center stage.”

Highlights of the report on well-being

The researchers examined studies from the U.K., Germany, Australia and the United States, seeking to understand what they called the “distribution of life-satisfaction,” from extremely dissatisfied to completely satisfied. They found the biggest group of responders – 30 percent – rated their satisfaction at eight on a scale of one to 10.

Next, they set out to understand what factors contribute most to life-satisfaction and to misery. Is it income? Is it educational attainment? Is it physical health? Is it being partnered with someone?

In the end, they said, “the new element” in determining satisfaction or misery is human behavior. Among their findings, in the authors’ words:

  • Income inequality explains only 1 percent of the variation in happiness in the community, while mental health differences explain over 4 percent. Education has a very small effect on life satisfaction, compared with, for example, having a partner.
  • When people evaluate their income or education, they generally measure it against the locally prevailing norm. As a result, overall increases in income or education have little effect on the overall happiness of the population: if my relative income rises, someone else’s must fall, and the average is unchanged. This helps to explain why in Australia, Britain, Germany and the United States, average happiness has failed to rise since records began, despite massive increases in living standards.
  • The strongest factor predicting a happy adult life is not children’s qualifications but their emotional health. There is also powerful evidence that schools have a big impact on children’s emotional health, and which school a child goes to will affect their emotional well-being as much as it affects their exam performance.

The results were meant to provide a framework for policymakers, said Nancy Hey, the director of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, an initiative of British decision-makers funded by the U.K. government.

“These findings can be used to inform policy and spending decisions, and I hope will lead to trials that continue to build the global evidence base of what works to improve well-being,” she said.

To learn more

If you’d like to discuss your physical, mental or emotional well-being with a health care professional, you can find a Providence provider here.

The London School of Economics published a story describing the report on its website.

You can read the slides presented at the well-being conference here.

You can read reports, news items and updates from the What Works Centre for Wellbeing on its website.

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