03/01/2012 04:56 GMT

UK Economy: Bleak Forecasts, But Are We Really Unhappy?

Throughout 2011, news media have charted the fractional rises in gross domestic product (GDP) growth with the fevered intensity of gamblers clutching at their last betting slip.

There are 2.6 million people out of work in the UK – a million of them between 16 and 25 - and the chances of a fresh recession are more than marginal. High street sales are weak, inflation is high, interest rates low. The eurozone might collapse. Knowing that, how happy are you? Really.

With most forecasts saying that the economy is likely to worsen before it gets better, and with unemployment set to rise again – to three million, according to some predictions – life can only get worse. If, that is, life is to be expressed through economic abstracts.

Anxiety and depression is on the rise, and has increased since the 2009 recession – figures from the NHS Information Centre showed that the number of prescriptions for antidepressants rose by 28% between 2007-2008 and 2010-2011.

Charities and social commentators have been quick to interpret the correlation between the two as being causal – unemployment and fragile financial prospects should naturally translate into low self-esteem and anxiety.

Statisticians, on the other hand, would warn against such conclusions. Advances in diagnosis, awareness and treatment could be responsible, as could any number of other social factors.

In a year that saw spontaneous disorder and mass social unrest in the UK and worldwide, the search for easy answers for psychosocial phenomenon has intensified.

The mass criminality of the summer riots in London, Birmingham and Manchester led to months of inquiry into what created the tinderbox of social decline and tension that was lit in August.

Disenfranchisement, multi-generational underemployment and poverty, hyperactive consumerism, all were commonly distilled to the same shorthand excuse beloved of politicians, think tanks and businesses: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

But is it? Why are people actually unhappy, and what can be done about it?

The body of work on the subject of well-being predates the current downturn. The consensus view that delivering economic growth translated into better standards of living, better healthcare, more education, more opportunity and, hence greater happiness, was being challenged by the mid 2000s.

"There was certainly the recognition that countries in the developed world, and some of the developing world, were just getting richer and richer and richer, but the people weren't better off. They were in fact, in many cases, more miserable," Professor Felicia Huppert, director of the Well-being Institute at Cambridge University, said.

"The recession has had another kind of an impetus, because what it's doing is challenging the values that people are adopting.”

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) launched its “Measuring National Well-being” programme in November 2010, with a view to systematically examining the UK’s quality of life. In its own words: “to provide a fuller understanding of how society is doing than economic measures, such as GDP, can provide.”

In April, the ONS began including four new questions in its Integrated Household Survey, which takes a large sample of the population and polls them on economic and social issues, including health, identity and education.

Now, the survey asks respondents to rank their “life satisfaction” out of ten, how anxious they are, how happy they feel, and how worthwhile they feel their activities are.

Canada and France are also looking to develop systems, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is to begin collecting data, launching a flagship report “How’s Life?” in October 2011, and creating an interactive index tool for citizens to rate and review the components needed for a “better life”.

In his speech launching the index, Angel Gurría, the OECD’s secretary-general, said: “Some may wonder whether it is still opportune to talk about well-being, rather than just focusing on the economic growth needed to get our countries out of this crisis.

“I strongly believe that today, even more than two years ago, we have to consider a broader picture in our policy making, because a ‘growth as usual’ approach is simply not enough. In the current difficult political context, it is of utmost importance to define core objectives besides level of income, such as improving our citizens’ well-being, ensuring access to opportunities and preserving our social and natural environment.”

Well-being is increasingly a mainstream consideration. However, the idea has still been attacked in some quarters and occasionally scoffed at in the press – how, critics ask, can subjective measures of “happiness” translate into real, actionable data?

Huppert’s answer is that we are accustomed to accepting people’s self-assessment when asking if they are in pain, or if they are suffering from symptoms of anxiety or depression. Why not the opposite?

“It’s really important that it is subjective. It’s not a weakness, it’s a strength, because it really is about how people experience their lives,” she said.

Occasionally dismissed as lightweight, well-being is an emerging science. Measuring does not simply involve asking a survey question - “are you happy?” - but means a multifaceted, complex and academically rigorous set of metrics.

In December, Huppert and her colleague Timothy So published a report, “Flourishing Across Europe”, which used data taken from a survey of 43,000 Europeans across 23 countries.

The study measured 10 features of well-being - competence, emotional stability, engagement, meaning, optimism, positive emotion, positive relationships, resilience, self-esteem and vitality – which were derived by looking at the internationally recognised criteria for depression and anxiety and defining the opposite.

This is not a spurious methodology – as depression and other mental illnesses become better understood, there is an increasing acceptance that they exist on a “hedonic” scale, where negative “symptoms” are mirrored with positive ones. In essence, that well-being is not the absence of pathologies, but something that can be understood – even actively promoted.

Britain scores in the middle of the scale, with the Nordic countries typically high, in the top half of the ranking, and Eastern European countries in the bottom half.

With so much negativity surrounding the economic situation at home and abroad, it is easy – too easy – to blame the growing symptoms of distress and anxiety and the erosion of happiness on falling incomes and fading financial prospects.

“If you’re looking at the things that really matter, that has hardly any relationship to macroeconomic factors,” Huppert said.

It is true that employment is an essential part of well-being, but more due to the role that jobs have in shaping personal identity and social relationships, the OECD’s research found. Commuting time and other factors which undermine the work-life balance – or take away from “family time” is likewise a component.

What really matters, research shows, is the quality of personal relationships and societal structures, particularly amongst young people.

In October, the Prince’s Trust, working with YouGov, asked a sample of more than 2,100 16-25 year-olds in the UK about their quality of life – including their work, education, accommodation, community, family relations, friendships, finances, and their physical and emotional health.

The same sample were asked about their confidence for the future in the same set of criteria, with marks out of 7 aggregated to a total score of 100, where 100 is entirely happy or confident.

The UK’s combined score on the “Youth Index” in 2011 was 73, two points higher than in 2010 – with the average “happiness” at 72 and “confidence” at 74.

Amongst young people who feel that their days “lacked structure and direction” while they were growing up, those scores drop to 62 and 65, respectively.

In September, another study, conducted by Unicef and Ipsos Mori, showed something similar amongst younger children. While that survey also explored the effects of consumerism and materialism in the youth, it concluded that familial relationships and friendships were “central to children’s subjective well-being.”

Unicef’s research, which looked at the UK, Spain and Sweden, found that children in Britain are less “resilient” – i.e. more susceptible to anxiety and poor well-being, than in the other two countries.

The reason, the report said, could be that UK families face greater pressures on their time and on their finances. Parents spend less time with their children in the UK, family time is not “part of the fabric of everyday life”, as it is in Spain and Sweden.

The active, creative pursuits and deep relationships that make children – and adults – happy are increasingly ignored in favour of material goods, Unicef said.

The solution appears faintly idyllic, and seems to play to the same conservative lobby that decries the collapse of “family values” and fears the rise of a socially and culturally poor generation of children with little sense of structure or responsibility – the “feral youth” of Hackney, Tottenham and Croydon.

David Cameron has set a stall out for that lobby – saying that he will help to reinforce the institution of marriage through the tax system. However, so-called “non-traditional” family structures are seen as equally important. Structure and positive relationships, rather than definitions of what constitutes a family, are what matters.

Targeting young people is a good start. Research on “positive psychology” at the University of Pennsylvania in the US led to “resilience” programmes for schoolchildren, young adults – and the military – to better enable them to understand their emotions and their interaction with other people and their environment.

Several UK schools are now running trials on similar lines, based on the findings in the US.

However, at a wider policy level, there are very difficult and complex questions to be answered. Where is the balance between the economic, the social and the individual? Where does well-being take preference over growth? After all, consumption is a central tenet of the UK economy and “hard graft” – read long hours – is a cultural staple. Is the UK, then, hardwired for misery?

How do you legislate? Can you legislate? Do people need protecting from themselves? What do you restrict, and how do you do it?

“At least the recognition that it needs to be thought about is very important, that whatever policy decisions are being made, one needs to think not only about their economic consequences, but also their social and individual consequences,” Huppert said. “It’s not that policymakers should aim to make people happier or more content, but it is that they should consider what they can do to create the conditions whereby people flourish.”

The problem is with how the “greater good” is interpreted in extremis.

Bhutan, for example, a Himalayan kingdom famous for its pursuit of “gross national happiness”, ahead of economic growth, restricts the inflow of tourists through very high visa fees – cutting off a potentially lucrative source of income for its relatively poor populace.

The rulers’ argument is that a large volume of tourists would damage the environment and introduce ideas and practices that might upset the balance of society, as it has in other developing countries.

Certain rights have also been restricted – for example, the sale of tobacco is banned in the country, on the basis that its effects are net negative, regardless of the effects on personal liberty and choice of blanket restrictions.

This may seem small, but extrapolating it out in other countries and other contexts, it is not hard to see how more fundamental rights of communication, assembly or even religion and culture could be restricted in the name of gross happiness.

Huppert said that the trick will be to educate, rather than to legislate.

“We in our democratic countries don’t want to have our freedoms restricted. But very often, people don’t understand what it is that’s good for their well-being,” she explained.

“People are free to spend all day and all night doing things on the internet, to go shopping all the time, but they think, wrongly, that these things are going to make them happy. And they’re not.”