There’s a well-worn adage that “money can’t buy you happiness”, and plenty of anecdotal evidence that it’s true.
Now, new research from the London School of Economics (LSE) seems to back that up, suggesting that good health and positive relationships are the true keys to happiness, rather than income.
The research was presented to a landmark conference on wellbeing held at the LSE this week. Named “Origins of Happiness”, the monumental study compiled responses from 200,000 people in four countries in a bid to find the roots of lifelong satisfaction.
It found that doubling someone’s income would typically have only a very small impact on their long-term happiness levels, but eliminating the key causes of human misery would have a much bigger and longer lasting effect. According to the research, most human misery is due to poor physical or mental health and to failed or dysfunctional relationships, rather than economic factors.
Eliminating depression and anxiety would reduce misery by 20%, while eliminating poverty would only reduce it by 5%, concluded the researchers. This seems to support another oft-heard phrase, that “we were poor then, but we were happy”. The study also found that:
· Levels of income or education had only a very small effect on ‘life satisfaction’ compared to other factors such as having a life partner.
· When evaluating their income or education, people tended to compare it to those around them, so general increases in living standards did not improve average happiness levels. This helps explain why people in the countries studied (Britain, the USA, Austria and Belgium) were generally no happier now than a generation ago, despite massive increases in their living standards.
· A child’s emotional health is a far better predictor of their happiness in later life than their education or their family’s wealth, and schools have a big role to play in promoting good emotional health in children.
Co-author of the study, Professor Richard Layard, said: “The evidence shows that the things that matter most for our happiness – and for our misery – are our social relationships and our mental and physical health.”
He believes that has major implications for governments, which should no longer focus primarily on policies to make people richer in the mistaken belief it would also make them happier.
“This evidence demands a new role for the state,” he said, “not ‘wealth creation’ but ‘wellbeing creation’.
“In the past, the state has successively taken on poverty, unemployment, education and physical health. But equally important now are domestic violence, alcoholism, depression and anxiety conditions, alienated youth, exam-mania and much else. These should become centre stage.”
Also taking part in this week’s conference was Nancy Hey, director of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. Commenting on the study, she said: “This world-leading research helps us understand what really supports people to live better lives. These findings can be used to inform policy and spending decisions, and I hope will lead to trials that continue to build the global evidence base of what works to improve wellbeing.”