New study says there is increasing evidence that psychological health is getting worse despite rising living standards
Europeans are becoming less “emotionally prosperous” despite the continuing rise in living standards, according to research that questions why the public are so badly misjudging what makes them happy.
The study, due to be published next month in the British Journal of Industrial Relations, says there is increasing evidence that “psychological health and mental wellbeing” is getting worse across Europe – a result that underscores the need for the government’s plans to measure people’s wellbeing, its authors said.
The government intends to add questions to the existing household survey, carried out by the Office of National Statistics, to gauge people’s happiness and how well they are reaching their “life goals”. It follows an announcement last year by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, that he plans to include wellbeing in France’s measurement of economic progress.
Andrew Oswald, the professor of behavioural science at Warwick University who led the study, and a member of Sarkozy’s commission investigating the relationship between happiness and prosperity, backed the British government’s new initiative. He said there was an urgent need to realise that economic growth “is pointless if people are becoming more distressed and feeling ever more pressurised”.
While Britain became richer by more than 40% between 1993 and 2007, the study says, measures of “neurotic symptoms and common psychiatric disorders” rose during the same period. Similar results are observed across the continent.
In Britain, Holland and Belgium – countries with reliable long-term data on mental health – all the indicators show that people are suffering greater degrees of psychological distress. The paper points out that an analysis of NHS surveys shows 15% of people – one-in-seven adults – were last year known to be suffering from at least one mental disorder.
“We needed economic growth in 1900, and African nations need it today. But today we don’t need wider televisions or cars that can race around at 190mph …it’s stuff that is way beyond our material needs,” said Oswald.
He says that said there are “three main things that go wrong as a country gets richer”. One appears to be the extreme pressure of modern work. The second is that humans are “creatures of comparison”, endlessly measuring themselves against their peers – fuelling a “giant rat race”. The last is that “people may make bad choices and do things that, despite what they think, will not make them happier”.
These, he said, are combining in the richer world to produce shocking outcomes, even for children: 15-year-olds now suffer more anxiety and depression than in the 1990s, and those young people in turn suffered more than 15-year-olds a decade before them in the 1980s.
The paper also calls into question the “Easterlin Paradox”, named after the US academic who first postulated that although people in richer nations are happier than those in poor countries, within the most developed states decades of economic growth have produced no increases in happiness.
“This goes beyond Easterlin because we are seeing happiness indicators – what I call emotional prosperity – actually decrease. It means that instead of making time for friends and family, we are looking to make more money or acquire consumer goods for our status.”
Oswald believes the Treasury would soon be working out policies’ “costs and benefits not just in terms of income but in terms of wellbeing”. In its recent spending review, the government said there was “widespread acknowledgement that GDP is not the ideal measure of wellbeing”.
But some cast doubt that happiness – or measures of it – should be used to inform public policy. Jill Kirby, director of the rightwing Centre for Policy Studies, said: “Governments should not be deciding on how people accommodate desires to make money or have relationships or spend time with family. People should be encouraged to decide for themselves, rather than government deciding what happiness is or is not.”