Azara Blog: British people are allegedly less happy than they used to be

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Date published: 2006/05/03

The BBC says:

Britain is less happy than in the 1950s - despite the fact that we are three times richer.

The proportion of people saying they are "very happy" has fallen from 52% in 1957 to just 36% today.

The opinion poll by GfK NOP for The Happiness Formula series on BBC Two provides the first evidence that Britain's happiness levels are declining - a trend already well documented in the United States.

Polling data from Gallup throughout the 1950s shows happiness levels above what they are today, suggesting that our extra wealth has not brought extra well-being.

It could even be making matters worse.

The British experience mirrors data from America, where social scientists have seen levels of life satisfaction gradually decline over the last quarter of a century.

In the early 1970s, 34% of those interviewed in the General Social Survey described themselves as "very happy".

By the late 1990s, the figure was 30% - a small but statistically significant drop.

The story of wealth failing to translate into extra happiness is the story of the Western world.

In almost every developed country, happiness levels have remained largely static over the past 50 years - despite huge increases in income.

What the happiness research suggests is that once average incomes reach about £10,000 a year, extra money does not make a country any happier.
Should politicians try to make us happier?

In our opinion poll we asked whether the government's prime objective should be the "greatest happiness" or the "greatest wealth".

A remarkable 81% wanted happiness as the goal. Only 13% wanted greatest wealth.

All very amusing, but unfortunately this kind of opinion poll is bound to be seriously flawed. The fact that 81% of people allegedly want the government's "prime objective" to be "greatest happiness" rather than "greatest wealth" shows how flawed it is. Instead ask people "do you want to pay more taxes so that more services can be directed at poorer people?" (which is the same question translated into actual policies) and see how they respond. And how many people have taken a pay cut to take a job that makes them happier? In particular, not many British people would be willing to see average incomes reduced to 10000 pounds per year (at least not for themselves), and anyone who promotes that kind of idea is obviously deluded.

Of course it could well be that the polls reflect some underlying reality, even if the numbers are rubbish. But perhaps people of the 1950s were less likely to want to admit to being miserable gits, whereas now it's so fashionable to be miserable that they have shows on TV just to gloat over the fact. Or perhaps it's just the case that the post-war generation had a lot more to be happy about, after all they had survived the war and things were going to get better, whereas that is not obviously the case today (the media, after all, keeps telling us that the end of the world is nigh). On a related matter, the BBC also says:

Britain's falling birth rate is being fuelled by a generation who would rather have fun and live comfortably than have children, a survey suggests.

The poll of 1,006 adults for the Guardian also suggested potential parents were forced to delay family life by career pressures.

Half of the adults quizzed said they found it increasingly difficult to find someone to have a family with.
Most men (64%) and most women (51%) said it was more important for women to enjoy themselves than have children.

A majority also said they believed doing well at work and earning money can count for more than bringing up children.

This survey is even more dubious than the happiness one, since depending on how the questions are precisely asked (and they are always black and white, and the world is not), you can get any result you want. This just seems part of the perpetual campaign to demonise working women and to force non-parents to hand over even more money in taxes to parents.

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