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12 May 2015

Mourning the election? Even a bad result cheers you up

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

By Michael Brooks

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.

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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? 

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