Are we a happier society?

Happiness: it has exercised the greatest minds for the past 3,000 years. From Socrates, “happiness is unrepentant pleasure” to Bertrand Russell, “the secret to happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible” to Ken Dodd, “happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess”.

More recently happiness has become a political issue. Conservative leader David Cameron has launched a “happiness agenda” in which he argues that the population’s general well-being is just as important as its gross domestic product. The government has its own “happiness tsar” in Lord Layard, one of the economic architects of New Labour and the author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. Layard argues that wealth alone cannot create happiness and that we need to be prompted and educated in how to become happier. This fits in rather neatly with Layard’s previous projects, the New Deal and Welfare to Work schemes whereby the long-term unemployed are prompted and educated into work.

Happiness lessons

Last month, Birmingham Council became the first local authority in the country to put Layard’s happiness theory into practice by placing it on the school curriculum. All 440 Birmingham schools have been told to make well-being as much a priority as English or Maths and pupils will be required to attend “emotional barometer” sessions to encourage them to express their feelings.

But are we really so miserable that we need lessons in how to be happy?

Most polls seem to suggest that the UK population’s general satisfaction with life is reasonably high. The BBC Two series The Happiness Formula conducted a survey in 2006 in which more than 90% of people said they were happy or fairly happy. This chimes with a survey conducted last year by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in which three-quarters of the population rated their satisfaction with life at seven or more out of 10.

The UK also fares reasonably well in the “world map of happiness” constructed by Leicester University social psychologist Adrian White. White has analysed a wide range of international data to create “a global projection of subjective well-being” in which the UK is ranked 41st out of 178 nations.

But there is also evidence that our happiness peaked in the 1970s and may now be on the wane. Government figures show people’s satisfaction with their standard of living had dropped between 1973 and 2006. In the BBC survey only 36% of those polled claimed to be “very happy” compared with 52% of people surveyed in 1957. This is despite the fact that standards of living are now much higher than in the 1950s.


Psychologist Oliver James attributes this inability of our happiness to keep pace with our material wealth to a condition he has termed “affluenza”. Bombarded by advertising, aspirational marketing and celebrity culture we find ourselves “in an obsessive, envious, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses state of mind that increases our vulnerability to emotional disorders, and is responsible for rising levels of depression, addiction, violence and anxiety”, he says. In short, the more we have, the more we want and the unhappier we become.

Probably the most influential commentator on happiness in recent times has been Dr Martin Seligman, director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Centre in the US. In his 2003 book Authentic Happiness, Seligman argues that happiness consists of three elements: a “set range” that is pre-determined by your genetic make-up your life circumstances (being married and living in a democracy help apparently) and your “voluntary control”, which describes the internal changes that individuals can make to improve their happiness.

In common with many happiness theorists, Seligman seems to suggest that happiness is primarily the responsibility of the individual. External factors such as health, wealth and social pressures are either too difficult to change, or have very little effect on happiness anyway. This may come as something of a surprise to those who attribute their unhappiness to their dead end jobs, poor housing, unfulfilling relationships and faltering health. The social workers whose job it is to help these disenfranchised people might also be expected to raise a quizzical eyebrow.


“The conclusion of a lot of the happiness literature is that money doesn’t make you happy,” says Dr Iain Ferguson, a senior lecturer in social science at Stirling University.

“Well that’s fine if you are a professor or a member of the House of Lords, but by playing down the effect of poverty and inequality it ignores the reality of the way that many people live their lives.”

It also conflicts with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs survey that suggested that while money can’t buy you happiness it doesn’t do any harm either. Of the 3,600 people surveyed, those most happy with their lives were those in relatively well-paid professions such as doctors, solicitors, teachers and police officers, scoring 7.6 out of 10 on average. Least satisfied were labourers, state pensioners and the unemployed who rated their satisfaction at 6.7 out of 10 on average. Adrian White’s global study also shows that a nation’s happiness is closely linked to health levels, then wealth, followed by education provision.

“My concern with happiness theorists [such as Layard and Seligman] is that the prescription is an individual one. But there are a lot of other things that influence how happy we are,” says Ferguson.

Working lives

One key influence on our happiness, says Ferguson, and one that may be close to many social workers’ hearts, is the way that our work affects our state of mind.

“The way that people work has changed dramatically over the past 10 years,” he says. “There has been a growth of managerialism, of working to budgets and targets and this has changed the way people feel about their jobs. Research we have done with social workers shows that many people in the profession feel they are not working to the aims and values that brought them into the job in the first place. As a result the profession is becoming unhappier.”

Ferguson claims that by resisting managerialism and the market-driven agenda, social workers may not only become happier but may also be in a better position to increase the happiness of the vulnerable people they work with. He points out that key to people’s happiness is the strength of the social network they have around them. And this is an area where the social work profession could have a far greater influence on people’s happiness than any amount of happiness theory delivered from the powers that be.

“It seems to me there’s a strong tradition within social work of social support and social network strategies linked to community development. That seems to offer a much more fruitful way forward,” he says.

Website extra
For more on happiness theory read Community Care blogs: Why aren’t we getting any happier? and Britain: A prozac nation? and Do You Have Affluenza? also Mental health, capitalism and genes

Make yourself happier
Martin Seligman has developed a website that offers a variety of tools and questionnaires to help make your life happier

● Dr Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillme, 2003
● Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, 2005
● Oliver James, The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza, 2007
● Iain Ferguson, Reclaiming Social Work: Challenging Neo-liberalism and Promoting Social Justice, 2007.

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