It is 10 years since the UK government began to measure happiness. As part of its annual population survey, the official statistics body now asks interviewees questions about their satisfaction, mood and sense of life being “worthwhile”. Not surprisingly, given present circumstances, the news at the moment is not good. While there isn’t a full decade’s worth of data yet, the most recent findings were on the gloomy side: measures of personal wellbeing significantly worsened in 2020, while anxiety reached record highs.
In a pandemic, what would you expect? Not joy, for sure. But Covid is far from the only shadow looming over us. The climate emergency and declining living standards are the most obvious reasons for pessimism. Many younger people, in particular, are filled with fears about a future that older people may never see, while millions face an increasingly difficult struggle to secure the basics of life (housing, food, health). Citizens Advice has warned that the upcoming £20 a week cut to universal credit could drive 2.3 million people into debt.
The wellbeing index was launched with good intentions – above all, that governments should pay more attention to subjective experience – and accompanied by a welter of claims from psychologists and others that new “mind-training” techniques (such as mindfulness meditation) and cognitive behavioural therapy could help deliver a much-needed boost to public health. Self-evidently, this isn’t how things turned out. If anything, the past few years have seen even greater concerns about unhappiness, particularly among teens.
This week, a report from the Children’s Society backed this up. It pointed to a “significant decline” over the past decade, with a headline figure of 6.7% of children who report feeling unhappy, and other findings including an increase in the number of boys dissatisfied with their appearance. Alongside concerns about children and a general perception of worsening mental health (or of longstanding problems going untreated), the past few years have also seen a new focus on loneliness, with efforts to address this championed by the murdered MP Jo Cox.
But what can policymakers really do about any of this? Invest in mental health services, certainly. Parity of mental with physical illness has been endlessly promised but never delivered. The pandemic means that the prospect is more remote than ever, and the autumn spending review must bring new resources, for example, to tackle waiting times. If the government does not do this it will be failing the public, including some of its most vulnerable members, in a very serious way.
But beyond funding mental health services properly, the answer is surely that the principal role of government is not to lift people’s spirits but to focus on their material needs. Criticising those who saw only misery among the labourers he wrote about, Thomas Hardy asserted in the 1880s that “wherever a mode of supporting life is neither noxious nor absolutely inadequate, there springs up happiness of one sort or other”. It is concerning but not surprising that many people are struggling to find reasons to be cheerful – and even less surprising that those who are worst off, and most insecure, are struggling most of all.