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 Monday, 20 January, 2003, 09:08 GMT
The politics of happiness
Charles Kennedy marries his wife Sarah
Marriage is equivalent to a 72,000 pay rise

We may moan about politicians but they really can make us happier, according to a new Cabinet Office report.

The report, entitled "Life Satisfaction: the state of knowledge and implications for government", is the kind of document Tony Blair might reach for if he wants to boost his ratings in the run-up to the next election.

Annual salary rise equivalent
Losing job: Minus 276,000
Getting married: Up 72,000
Getting separated: Minus 132,000
Spouse dies: Minus 168,000
Source: Cabinet Office

Pointing to the things that make us happy, it suggests marriage can boost your happiness by as much as a 72,000 salary rise.

Government corruption and incompetence can make us less happy, but giving the public a greater democratic say adds to people's well-being, says the report.

The report does suggest governments over the last 30 years have had little impact on making the UK a happier country.

Happy money?

During that time, life satisfaction in the UK and other richer nations is judged to have been high but stable.

The UK ranks 6th in Europe's life satisfaction stakes, which are topped by Denmark.

The report continues: "People with higher incomes are more satisfied than those with lower incomes, and an increase in personal incomes does bring higher levels of satisfaction...

"However, despite large increases in national income (and expenditure) over the last 30 years, levels of life satisfaction have not increased commensurately."

Tony Blair
Democracy can make you happier - as Tony Blair knows
That may be because problems like crime or divorce rates has risen along with income.

Or because salary rises can cause envy among others or because people soon get used to having more money and expect more.

The report unsurprisingly says unemployment is a blow to happiness, but far more because of the social effects of losing your job than because of lost earnings.

That finding supports welfare policies more concerned with getting people back in work than with boosting benefits, it suggests.

Happiness is being where one is and not wanting to be somewhere else

Michael Frayn

Job satisfaction can also be a factor, although that has fallen with rising stress levels during the 1990s, says the report.

The major boost of marriage, seen as a person's most important relationship, partly reflects the relatively small effect income has on happiness.

Little research, however, has been done on the impact of living with a partner.

William Hague
Losing a job is a blow for happiness - ask William Hague
Leisure activities can also create more smiling faces, with those who play sport, exercise or work in the garden generally more satisfied, as are religious people.

The report says: "It has been estimated in the US that going to monthly club meetings, monthly volunteering, monthly entertaining or bi-weekly church attendance each have the happiness equivalent of a doubling of money income."

But there are limits to how much individuals can boost their own happiness, it suggests, and that leaves a role for government.

"There is a case for state intervention to boost life satisfaction, due mainly to evidence of direct impacts on life satisfaction of government activities," it says.

Democracy doldrums

The report, which is not government policy, also underlines the "strong evidence of the dependence of individuals' well-being on the actions of others".

Public corruption, however, can damage life satisfaction, it warns.

And in what is perhaps unlikely to become a 6th test for holding a euro referendum, the report argues that the kind of direct democracy seen in Switzerland can boost happiness by much more than pay rises.

The report's findings suggest the happiness of the population could affect the way efforts to improve the NHS or schools are judged.

If general mood affects public perceptions, that could explain why "objectively similar public services in relatively poor and deprived areas are typically associated with lower satisfaction ratings than those in more comfortable areas".

Policy ideas

Report authors Nick Donovan and David Halpern suggest happiness data could be widely used in government, perhaps to quantify non-cash benefits of policies.

The government could also provide more information to the public on how people can increase their own happiness, and it could give more support to volunteering schemes.

The report says that among the more controversial suggestions from some commentators are promoting a better work-life balance through a statutory 4-day week.

Or richer people could be taxed more as this would "choke off" a mistaken focus on money as the path to life satisfaction - although others would argue people should be allowed to earn as much as they like, even if it does not make them happy.

See also:

12 Dec 02 | Business
03 Oct 02 | Health
06 Jan 03 | Health
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