Monday 16 September 2019 4:16 am

Ignore the doom-and-gloom headlines – people keep getting happier

Ian Stewart is chief economist at Deloitte.

The news gives us plenty to worry about these days.

From trade wars to political polarisation, the world seems full of risks. It is therefore perhaps surprising that – as far as we can tell – people are getting happier. 

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) surveys 150,000 people in the UK every year, and has been finding that levels of satisfaction with life and a sense of purpose have steadily increased since the survey started in 2012. Large-scale surveys from the United Nations tell a similar story.

This might seem at odds with the world of volatility, sluggish growth, and austerity. But surveys of happiness and wellbeing capture a much broader idea of welfare than well-established indicators like GDP.

So, what could it be that is making people so happy?

Having a job makes a big difference. Money is obviously important, but a sense of belonging, structure and purpose matters too. 

Anxiety and depression are four to 10 times more prevalent among people who have been unemployed for over 12 weeks than those in work. 

In the last decade, the UK has proved remarkably effective at creating new jobs and getting unemployed people into work. With the unemployment rate at just 3.8 per cent, work is arguably easier to find than at any time since the early 1970s.

Although incomes have grown only sluggishly in the last 10 years, people across the income distribution have more spending power than they did in 2008. The minimum wage has increased by 26 per cent in real terms since 2007 – far faster than growth in average incomes.

Household balance sheets have also benefited from low interest rates, which have increased the value of housing and collapsed the cost of borrowing. The wealth of the average UK household has risen from just over £43,000 to about £70,000 since 2008. The burden of debt relative to income has fallen, and debt-servicing costs are at their lowest ever levels.

But it is not just the economy that has lifted the nation’s mood. 

The fact that people in Northern Ireland consistently exhibit higher levels of happiness than higher-earning Londoners, or even that people in Costa Rica, a middle-income country, report greater levels of happiness than in far wealthier Japan demonstrates that there is more to happiness than money.

A raft of less publicised social and welfare indicators for the UK suggest that, whatever the headlines might be  telling you, our everyday lives could be getting better. 

Healthy life expectancy has continued to rise, as have survival rates for all the main cancers and heart disease. Our roads are getting safer. Atmospheric pollution, measured by the emission of chemicals such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulates, has fallen significantly since the turn of the century.

Binge-drinking, drug use and smoking have declined among 16-24-year-olds. The divorce rate has been on a downward path since its high-point 25 years ago. The number of offences recorded by the Crime Survey for England and Wales has fallen from a peak of 19.1m in 1995 to 10.3m in 2009, and 6.1m today.

Of course there are plenty of areas where society is facing serious problems – obesity, homelessness, and knife crime, to name but three.

But the good news is that, on average, people appear to be getting happier. Could it be that life isn’t, after all, quite as bad as we at times think?

Main image credit: Getty

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