As self-care and mental health become more prominent in public conversations, it is not surprising that World Happiness Day made headlines this week, with an accompanying United Nations report that informed us that Norway had unseated Denmark as the world’s happiest country.
While the study uses self-reporting to generate a score for each country, the variables it considers in fact paint quite a holistic picture of societal well-being: life expectancy, social support, trust, generosity, freedom, and income. For example, the US has been showing consistent signs of reduced happiness since 2007, which researchers attribute to minimal levels of social support (having someone to count on in times of need) and higher levels of perceptions of corruption.
The UK on the other hand ranked 19th, having moved up four spots with a score of 6.714 out of 10.
In the UN report, the two biggest factors explaining the UK’s score were its GDP per capita, followed by its social support.
However, the UN also explains that it also consistently finds huge variations between the levels of happiness and satisfaction within countries – in Western Europe, this was found to be attributable to mental and emotional health rather than income (as opposed to the example of Indonesia, where emotional health matters, but income matters more). How does this square with recent personal wellbeing-related findings from the UK’s APS (Annual Population Survey)? The findings from the period between October 2015 and September 2016 reveal that while the levels of self-reported anxiety rose during this period, as we would expect during the immediate post-Brexit period of uncertainty, average life satisfaction ratings have been steadily rising over the years, with a significant difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK countries.
Looking at regional levels of anxiety, the picture that emerges is again a fragmented one, with areas like Rotherham or West Lancashire scoring an average of above 3 out of 10. Although overall levels of anxiety are lower than they were in 2011/12, during the aftermath of the global economic downturn, pockets of more intense anxiety surrounded by areas that scored significantly lower remain prevalent.
In addition to regional fragmentation, happiness and anxiety levels also vary significantly by age.
While the low levels of anxiety among over 80s are consistent with Trajectory’s view that the meaning of age is changing and the elderly are living longer and better, it seems that middle age (the pre-retirement period in the public’s late forties and early fifties) constitutes the trough of the chart. It is possible to speculate why this is – for example, as the retirement age rises (just a few days ago it was reported that the number of women working past the age of 70 has doubled since 2005), the economic well-being of this demographic may be called into question as levels of employment exit rates among 50 to 64 year olds hit record highs in 2016. The age group also coincides with the period commonly perceived as a mid-life crisis.
What happiness indexes (and similar indicators) try to do is essentially take a scientific approach to subjective well-being. However, these can also help quantify levels of fragmentation within the social fabric (especially over time) and how this fragmentation evolves in response to specific causes of happiness or unhappiness.
What these surveys cannot do, of course, is revolutionise or re-conceptualise the way we think about what makes us happy or unhappy.
While hard numbers such as fluctuations in GDP figures are going to be monitored left, right and centre during the Brexit process, quantifying how public circumstances and actions affect the national mood tell us that what we may already perceive can be tangibly shown using mathematical figures.
While happiness indexes may not be infallible – I am not proposing that we start measuring the UK’s annual GNH (Gross National Happiness) – the nuance they add to studies taking into account factors such as child mortality or life expectancy is vital. What must be remembered is that the data can help researchers better understand whether a country is pursuing policies that are helping its national growth in a way that hinders well-being.