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Happiness poverty in the UK

What matters for happiness (and what matters more)…

You may not know it, but the UK is leading the way in the world of wellbeing measurement. Since the former UK Prime Minister David Cameron declared to measure the nation’s happiness in 2010, the Office of National Statistics (ONS), have regularly asked a representative sample of citizens four “personal wellbeing” questions. The ONS “big four” is made up of questions about people’s life satisfaction, happiness, anxiety, and sense of worth.

Now, as you may have figured out by now, I’m less interested in this blog about what makes people happy. I think we need to stop thinking about how to be happy and start thinking about what happiness is for. However, we can be happier, and there’s some very good empirical research (and traditional wisdom) out there telling us how. In this post, I’m going to take a slight detour from the Happiness Problem and show why this research is important, even if we don’t care about how to happy.

So, to have a go at summing it all up in an extremely oversimplified fashion, being happy requires having at least the following five things:

  1. A Healthy Body: It’s hard to do anything while in continuous pain, discomfort or low energy; we also need to eat, drink and sleep well.

  2. A Healthy Environment: Like plants, how happy we are is largely determined by the health of the soil we are growing in; more important than our individual goals and choices is the context we are situated in. Is our environment safe? Can we trust those around us? Can we express ourselves? Can we take risks? Can we be physically active? Do we have access to places that are warm, light, quiet, and population free? Are we surrounded by open, green, sociable spaces? Do we live in a supportive community? Do we have regular contact with those we love?

  3. Healthy Relationships: More than anything else, people matter. Do we have people we can confide in? Can we ask for help from others? Do we trust the people we love?

  4. A Healthy Relationship With Ourselves: A key part of having healthy relationships is having a sense of self-worth that is not entirely contingent on what they think about us; we often get this sense of meaning or purpose from the work we do, which is one of the reasons why unemployment is so detrimental to happiness; it is also one of the reasons why inequality, which increases social comparisons and status anxieties, decreases trust and happiness on a societal scale.

  5. A Healthy Curiosity: In any part of our lives, we can be open to new ways of seeing things and doing things differently; things that provide us with a sense of wonder, gratitude and compassion help us experience a kind of inner happiness less dependent on our practical goals and concerns.

Of course, there may be more than these five things that matter to how happy we are. But it’ll do for now. Again, I’m not that interested in how to be happy – even if we were to have the above five things in our lives, what I think is more important is how we go about getting them. For, none of the above five things are end points. We will never reach a state where we have a healthy enough body or a healthy enough environment, for instance. We will always be motivated to have a more healthy body or environment – bodies and environments that meet our needs for survival and connection with even more certainty and security.

Nonetheless, thinking about what makes us happy is useful for understanding the particular ways in which we are motivated to find more certainty and security in our lives. Say, for instance, we discover that healthy relationships make people happy. From this, we can infer that healthy relationships help us predictably meet our needs, and that a large range of emotions and moods will motivate us to seek them out.

Which brings us back to the ONS measures of wellbeing. Recently, the ONS did some research into who in the UK has the poorest personal wellbeing. Their main finding was that health has by far the largest impact on happiness poverty. People who reported having very bad or bad health were 13.6 times more likely to report having the lowest combined levels of life satisfaction, happiness, anxiety, and sense of worth.

This is a big factor. The ONS research also found economic activity to play an important (albeit less significant) role. Being in unemployment or unpaid family work was associated with poor personal wellbeing. In response to these findings, the researchers suggest that both poor health and unemployment are key factors in feelings of loneliness – another factor that has been shown to have a significant impact on people’s health and happiness.

One of things about wellbeing research is that the findings are often obvious. Of course poor health matters to people’s happiness – we all knew that. Unemployment and loneliness – yep, we knew that too. What tends to make it illuminating, however, is just how much these obvious things matter. Poor health matters a lot – again, associated with an individual being 13.6 times more likely to be unhappy. One of the reasons these factors matter so much is because they tend to all hang together: having poor health and being unemployed increases loneliness; loneliness increases the chances of worsening health and further unemployment; and so on.

This is why it’s so tempting to produce a list of the key ingredients of happiness as I’ve done above. Health, environment, relationships, self-worth, curiosity – without any one of these things, the rest can fall.

In this blog, we will continuously return to these factors, discussing how each factor can help us predictably meet our needs for survival and connection. However, for the reasons outlined in this post, none of these things will ever solve all our problems. No matter how good our lives are, we can always make them more certain and secure, and will be motivated by happiness and unhappiness to do so.

The key ingredients of happiness are important in the ways discussed above, but we should not get carried away. More importantly, we need to understand their limits and how we can achieve them without causing harm to others and ourselves in the process.

For all those interested, here are some links to a handful of excellent organisations in the UK working on wellbeing measurement and policy:

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