A woman awaits the papers at a Middlesbrough and East Cleveland Count. Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
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Mourning the election? Even a bad result cheers you up

Studies show that populations are happier when they can choose things - including the government.

Here’s a handy scientific fact to bear in mind if the election has turned out badly for you: that there was an election at all to get unhappy about has already increased your levels of happiness.

In a paper published last month, Ruut Veenhoven of Erasmus University in Rotterdam took stock of the 23,000 research findings on happiness published since the 1970s. One central insight was that having opportunities to choose things in life increases happiness. In developed countries, political freedom has stronger links to happiness than economic freedom.

The study of happiness is a surprisingly fruitful area of research and it is having some success in infiltrating politics. David Cameron has been known to discuss the idea that politicians should work to increase what he terms “general well-being”. Maybe that’s to be expected: politicians want to make you happy, after all, even if no one since Nye Bevan has actually pulled it off. Nonetheless, the Labour peer Richard Layard, who works at the London School of Economics, has suggested that government policy should be guided by the research literature on happiness. A policy, he says, should be chosen for its effect on contentment rather than its perceived economic value.

It is important to appreciate that we won’t all be equally happy. Veenhoven’s paper points out that the average happiness score in Denmark, one of the top four happy nations, was 8.1 out of ten in a 2008 survey. But a tenth of the population scored itself at five or less. In Zimbabwe, then the least happy country, 14 per cent of the people were still as happy as the average Dane.

Yet the difference in happiness between citizens is getting smaller. You won’t be shocked to learn that happiness rises as inequality falls. Having less to envy increases your well-being. As a result of a general fall in inequality across the world, we are, as a species, happier than ever.

So, where to go from here? Scientists have some tips: they have found that you can make yourself happier by spending time with family members, distracting yourself from negative thoughts and allowing yourself to dwell on your emotions for a couple of minutes a day. Social relationships are also hugely beneficial to your well-being. For all the health advice about alcohol, going out for a drink with friends is probably better for you than abstemiously staying at home.

Puzzles remain. One is whether long-term happiness growth is sustainable. Self-reported happiness is a predictor of longevity but increased longevity correlates with the incidence of cancer and dementia. A Saga survey released last year showed that these are the illnesses we fear most. It may be that fear and happiness will one day cancel out each other’s growth.

Second, Veenhoven’s report shows that the number of scientific articles on happiness published each year has been growing at an enormous rate since the 1960s. However, there was a conspicuous ten-year downturn from 1980. Why did the reigns of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan stop us researching happiness?

A third unknown is that no one has data on the happiness of North Koreans. They don’t take part in surveys of this kind.

Here’s a question to discuss at your happiness-boosting post-election drinks party: should we have ministers for happiness and well-being? And how quickly after they read their first set of briefing papers will they resign to spend more time with their family? 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear