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The Secrets of Happiness

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The Secrets of Happiness

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  • Feb. 2013
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The secrets of happiness
By RICHARD LAYARD
1There is a paradox at the heart of our civilisation. Individuals want more income. Yet as society has got richer, people have not become happier. Over the past 50 years we have got better homes, more clothes, longer holidays and, above all, better health. Yet surveys show clearly that happiness has not increased in the US, Japan, Continental Europe or Britain. 2By happiness I mean feeling good – enjoying life and feeling it is wonderful. And by unhappiness I mean feeling bad and wishing things were different. Most people find it easy to say how good they are feeling, and in social surveys such questions get 99 per cent response rates – much higher than the average.

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3It is true that, within any particular society at any particular moment, rich people are on average happier than poorer ones. For example, 41 per cent of people in the top quarter of incomes are ‘very happy’, compared with only 26 per cent of those in the bottom quarter of incomes. The problem is that, over the years, the proportions in each group who are very happy have not changed at all although the real incomes in each group have risen hugely. This is true of all the main western countries. 4We also know that clinical depression, assessed professionally through population surveys, has risen in most countries. A survey from London University’s Institute of Education, out this month, shows that as many as 29 per cent of women aged 30 in 2000 reported suffering trouble with nerves or feeling low, depressed or sad; the comparable figure in a similar survey, among those aged 36 in 1982, was just 16 per cent. Researchers disagree over the size of the increase, but nobody believes depression has diminished, despite the much greater ease of our material life. 5Further evidence comes from comparisons between different countries. These show that, where average income per person is less than $15,000 a year in other words, where many people...