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Last Updated: Friday, 25 April, 2003, 23:33 GMT 00:33 UK
Does spending make Britain happy?
Female shoppers
Every man, woman and child in Britain owes on average 2,300
Mortgages, loans, credit and store cards - it seems Britons can't get enough of borrowing. But does our consumer culture make us happy? BBC Two's new series Spend, Spend, Spend takes a look.

Personal debt has reached a record high as we strive to keep up with the Joneses - or the Beckhams.

Credit card lending rose by 400m last month, according to the British Bankers' Association - the biggest monthly rise for nearly three years.

Citizens Advice has reported a 46% increase in the number of consumer debt cases handled over the past five years.

On average, every man, woman and child in the UK owes at least 2,300.

But has being addicted to spending made us any happier?

Unhappy comparisons

Researchers at Warwick University have discovered most people need to feel richer than their neighbours, even when they do not know them.

Two-thirds of people taking part in an experiment at Warwick were so desperate to better their imagined rivals, they were willing to sacrifice some of their own money if it meant their neighbours would get poorer as well.

During the past 25 years, people have had material things far more, and yet it doesn't seem to have generated greater happiness
Professor Andrew Oswald, Warwick University

This culture of comparison is ruining our chances of being happy, according to Professor Andrew Oswald.

He said: "During the past 25 years, people have had material things far more, and yet it doesn't seem to have generated greater happiness."

The UK's population will find it hard to get happier, he claims, because as a nation we are constantly looking over our shoulder.

"That's the curse - we keep looking around and making comparisons," he said.

Money, not time

Britons already work the longest hours in Europe. We are increasingly following the American example, where employees now work a month a year more than they did in the 1970s.

Spending has to compensate for the fact that we're losing time
Professor Juliet Schor

Yet research shows levels of happiness in the US peaked in 1957 and have been dropping ever since.

Professor Juliet Schor, from Harvard, claimed the "last man standing" culture, which drives workers to stay in the office longer, is not just affecting family life and health, it is also making people spend more.

She said: "People see their family members much less, and marriages founder when couples don't have time to see each other.

"Spending then has to compensate for the fact that we're losing time - we're losing control of our lives."

Compulsive shopping

While everyone has been tempted to make an occasional unwise purchase, the need to buy things to boost self-esteem and happiness worries psychologists.

Estimates of the number of sufferers vary, but research from Sussex University suggested compulsive and uncontrollable buying affected between 2% and 5% of adults in Europe and the US.

To maintain the 'high' needed to keep retail therapy going you have to spend more and more - for most, that's impossible
Professor Oswald
That is between one and three million people in the UK alone.

The vast majority of compulsive shoppers are women. Figures suggest as many as 92% of suffers were female, and most of those are aged between 17 and 37.

In the US, the problem has reached such proportions that one manufacturer has released an anti-depressant drug it claims can help combat the urge to spend.

But the shopping buzz does not last for long.

Prof Oswald said: "The pleasure from having extra things wears off.

"To maintain the 'high' needed to keep the retail therapy going you would have to spend more and more - and for most people that's impossible."

Health and happiness

For Prof Schor the answer is to focus on the important things in life.

"People who care about how much money they're going to make, about their possessions are more depressed, have poorer social connections and less vitality," she said.

The pursuit of wealth stops us pursuing the things that make us happy, said Prof Schor.

Instead we should be concentrating on friendships, relationships and health.

"That's what makes for a happy life."

Spend, Spend, Spend is broadcast in the UK on Saturday 26 April, at 1900 BST on BBC Two.

How I kicked the debt habit
13 Jan 03  |  Business
Growth in personal debt slows
03 Jan 03  |  Business
Fewer plan to pay off card debts
21 Feb 03  |  Business

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