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Economic factors are not the biggest cause of unhappiness — failed relationships and mental illness play a far greater role, a major new study into the “origins of happiness” has found.

Eliminating depression and anxiety would reduce misery by 20%, whereas eliminating poverty would only cut it down by 5%, social scientists at the London School of Economics have said, after conducting extensive research into the most effective ways to promote wellbeing and reduce misery .

Treating mental illness would involve no net cost to the public purse, the team added, because the economic benefits would exceed the initial costs. The group, led by economist Richard Layard, said they want to “revolutionise how we think about human priorities” and promote using the “burgeoning new science of ‘subjective wellbeing’” as a measure of successful governance, instead of the economy.

“The evidence shows that the things that matter most for our happiness and for our misery are our social relationships and our mental and physical health,” said Layard, “This demands a new role for the state — not ‘wealth creation’ but ‘wellbeing creation’.” He added: “In the past, the state has successively taken on poverty , unemployment, education and physical health. But equally important now are domestic violence, alcoholism, depression and anxiety conditions, alienated youth, exam-mania and much else. These should become centre stage.”

Although living standards have vastly improved in the last 40 years, levels of enjoyment from life have stayed static for people in Australia, Germany, the US, and the UK, the team said, as they prepared to present their findings for the first time at an OECD co-organised conference on wellbeing, which will be held at the LSE on Monday and Tuesday .

When people evaluate their income or education, they generally measure it against the prevailing local norm, the study found, as a result, overall increases in income or education have little effect on the overall happiness of the population.

In fact, income inequality explains only 1% of the variation in happiness in the community, while mental health differences explain over 4%.Other key findings included education only having a very small effect on life satisfaction, compared with, for example, having a partner. The strongest factor predicting a happy adult life is not children’s qualifications but their emotional health, the researchers said, criticising “exam-mania”.

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