It’s your relationships, stupid

6 Mar

The Office for National Statistics has just released the first results of a government survey  into the (often contested) area of happiness – known to wonks as ‘subjective well-being’ or ‘life satisfaction’.

Governments are widely held to be for the economic, material and concrete parts of life: measuring GDP, industrial output, economic growth.  And through measuring these, what do we get?  A picture of ‘how well we are doing’ devoid of social content.  There are those who say ‘keep it that way’ – the last thing we should be doing as the economy crashes is to devote any time to feelings, when we could be quantifying more tangible stuff. The State has no business rummaging around in the affairs of the heart.  However, if we concentrate too much on the material, we miss out the things which give many of us quality of life: caring for children or other relatives; couple relationships; our sense of belonging.  If we have no measure of these aspects of existence, we know a lot about price and little about value – or even values, come to that.

So, perhaps measuring non-material well-being can tell us something about the way we live now. Who in the UK has been found to be the happiest  today?  Women report slightly higher levels of happiness (‘life satisfaction’, ‘feeling happy yesterday’) than men.  Having children in a household is associated with higher ratings of feeling that life is worthwhile.  It is also on this dimension of happiness that women and men differ most – with women scoring their lives at an average of 7.8/10 on being worthwhile, compared to 7.5/10 for men.  Perhaps greater involvement in family life is a part of women’s higher level of happiness; perhaps higher employment rates see more women today feeling fulfilled. However, the survey also measures anxiety, and women remain ahead of men on that measure – (reporting their level of anxiety yesterday at an average of 3.3/10, while men’s average stood at 3.1/10).  Capricious us, more satisfied and more worried than men? Maybe different areas of satisfaction (working life and family life?) are too often experienced in competition with one another.

It’s interesting that the lowest levels of happiness are reported by men aged 45-49. These are not only the years of the conventional mid-life crisis, but also of pressure to provide financially for current and future family needs.  Men today do this in the presence of children likely to be younger and more demanding than was the case for fathers of the same age in the generation above.  And more men aged 45 to 49 now are in relationships with women who are employed and who expect (as they expect of themselves) to have a stronger role in family life, than their own fathers did. The idea of the involved father has arrived: but often the realities of working life and economics prevent its full realisation. More men may now be experiencing the role conflicts familiar to women, albeit more often from the perspective of being locked into employment at the expense of family time.

Relationships clearly have a role in happiness – people in couples are happier than those who are not (e.g. divorced people rate their happiness yesterday at 6.6/10 compared to 7.5/10 and 7.7/10 for cohabitees and spouses). The data also indicate that Londoners feel less happy than those living elsewhere in the UK, even though economic power is concentrated here.

The ONS is keen to describe these measures of happiness as ‘experimental’ and has not as yet conducted analyses which might move beyond factors which are associated with greater happiness,  to look at causal links between social and relationship characterisitics and life satisfaction.  Since middle-aged, male people living in London run the country, it is unlikely that the happiness question will go away.

How to convert knowledge of happiness into effective policy is another vexed question – the mention of ‘back to basics’ shows the risks of political involvement in defining healthy relationships.  Many years ago, the story has it, Madame de Gaulle silenced a dinner party by saying that the thing she most looked forward to in her husband’s retirement was ‘A penis’.  Her husband remarked that in English we in fact pronounce the word ‘’Appiness’.  Early indications are that possession of the former does not automatically lead to more of the latter.

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