Can’t get no satisfaction from a happiness survey

Governments’ and pollsters’ efforts to measure public satisfaction miss the point that while contentment is fleeting, moaning keeps Britain happy, says Iain Murray

War is imminent, the stock market is falling like a spent rocket, recession lurks just around the corner, and the talk is of happiness.

Last week, Cadbury earned the desired publicity dividend on a survey into happiness, with no fewer than a sixth of respondents admitting to being besides themselves with wellbeing 100 per cent of the time. As if that were not enough to chill the blood, the Government’s creepy think tank, the Strategy Unit, produced a study of “life satisfaction” and hinted that public policy has a part to play in making us content with our lot.

The root of this depressing outbreak of happiness research is this column’s old foe, the public opinion survey. Since the Seventies, random samples of people across the world have been asked to rate their happiness and life satisfaction on a scale. Economists insist the findings are reliable and, as proof, say they tally well with other universally accepted indicators such as smiling and walking upright. In other words, people who tell the researchers they are happy tend to look happy.

Accurate or not, the figures throw up a curious paradox. Nations with a high standard of living, as measured by gross domestic product, are happier than those with a low GDP. Therefore, one would assume, money and possessions contribute to a sense of wellbeing. However, when individuals in wealthy countries are questioned, it becomes clear that steadily rising GDP does not produce steadily rising happiness. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that people today are less satisfied with their lives than their parents were.

Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick, is a happiness expert, so it is not surprising to hear him draw a morose conclusion. “In answer to the big question: ‘Has a country like ours become happier through the last few decades?’, my judgment, as a happiness researcher, is no. The curse of human-ness is that people feel compelled unconsciously to look over their shoulders all the time: happiness and self-esteem depend on rank and relative income. There is only so much rank to go around.”

This should come as some comfort to those advertisers and marketers who are occasionally accused of creating “false wants” and thus contributing to the encircling misery. What is meant by a false want is more accurately expressed as a false need – that people are being persuaded to buy things they could do without. But who, if not the market, is to decide what we need? A Need Commission, perhaps? But whatever we own, and whoever influences our decision to buy, the happiness research suggests that the satisfaction – or dissatisfaction – derived from material possessions is relative.

The Strategy Unit gives the example of a BMW, the model of car generally recognised as being driven by the most arrogant and selfish motorists. “Buying a BMW causes envy among others, reducing their life satisfaction. And as more people buy BMWs, the positive life satisfaction effect on the original purchaser wears off. This explanation has great force at the individual level, and can help to explain the modesty of the relationship between economic growth and wellbeing.”

As Prof Oswald says, happiness and self-esteem depend on rank and relative income. I buy a BMW. The result: happiness and the self-esteem of feeling one-up on the neighbours (with the added piquancy of schadenfreude caused by their envy and dissatisfaction). GDP rises, my neighbours buy BMWs. Result: misery all round; I no longer outrank the neighbours, and, because all God’s children now have BMWs, no one feels particularly satisfied.

You can’t blame marketing for that. Nor is there any way around the problem. Even if the anti-market egalitarians were to succeed in reducing us all to hunter-gatherers scratching a living in a land blissfully free of plenty, my extra sharp spear would excite envy among my neighbours until they, too, acquired similar weapons, and then we’d all feel miserable. Albert Einstein put it succinctly: “Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

Personally, I derive satisfaction from the knowledge that some people are never happier than when they are miserable – particularly Yorkshiremen. It may also explain the paradox thrown up by the polls. Respondents who tell researchers they are dissatisfied may neglect to point out that their dissatisfaction is a solace and cause of inner wellbeing. There is great joy to be found in moaning and we as a nation are pretty good at it. Every radio phone-in throws up potential champions who could moan for Britain.

In any case, it is foolish to see happiness as a goal to be pursued. As an end in itself, it is an unattainable will o’ the wisp, a butterfly. Chase it however hard you will, pant after it over hill and vale, stumble, reach out, and breathlessly clutch it. Tremulously open your hand, and it is empty.

Happiness is unfailingly the by-product of something else. And often you don’t realise how happy you were until after the event. Then, knowing the moment can never be repeated, you are miserable. Being human isn’t much fun.

Iain Murray


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