The pursuit of happiness


The Government’s Happiness Survey has been widely ridiculed.  But government concern with the people’s happiness is neither new – its in the constitution of the United States (although it may have been a euphemism for the pursuit of property and wealth!) – nor unusual and sinister.  Imagine a Government which openly said “Our aim is to make people much less happy…”

What the survey reveals is not new or surprising.  People in long term committed relationships (marriage/civil partnerships) are more happy than single people, who are in turn more happy than divorced people.  Teenagers and the retired are the most contented.  Those in work, where one has reasonable control over one’s own work and life, are more contented than those in other work, but most work scores better than being unemployed.  (Outdoors work scores well.)    Homeowners are happier than those who rent.  Women are slightly more anxious than men but slightly happier too.

As one paper put it, the Government survey is very British.  Averaging 7.4/10, the average Brit’s Facebook status is ‘mustn’t grumble’.

How one interprets this is more difficult.   To be a married homeowner, in a well paid job with status, means you are happier.  Does it make you happier?   There’s lots of evidence that the better off are less sick and that makes you happier, and that people with control over their work, are happier. (There was a shock study many years back that showed the high ups in the civil service with their self proclaimed stressful jobs were actually a much lower risk for heart disease than their lowly clerks.)  The book the Spirit Level produces lots of evidence that claims to show that in developed societies, the more equal societies are the happier and better performing – contested by many.    Some would say its the insecurity of renting that makes people unhappy.

I think it is particularly awkward around relationships.  Someone who has certain long term mental or physical illnesses will find it more difficult to enter and keep a relationship or a job.  The evidence that its the not being married that makes them unhappy (rather than the illness or unemployment) is unclear.  Divorced people may be less happy – would they be happier if forced by some on the religious right to stay in deeply unhappy or abusive marriages?  Are the children of deeply unhappy marriages better off than those whose parents divorce?

Partly, these relationships can be teased out by good research.  Partly, our response has to be about our values, what sort of a life we want to lead, what type of country we believe in, and for those of faith, what sort of purpose and life we think we are called to.  Partly our happiness does depend on our philosophy, how we take adversity and what we do with it.  Religion needs to be about us as individuals and also as a society.

How ‘we’ help people be well, support good relationships, and keep people out of poverty, poor housing and unemployment is the trickier bit.

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