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Jan 22, 2018 | by Andrew Clark, Sarah Flèche, Richard Layard, Nick Powdthavee and George Ward

Origins of happiness: new research

Today is the launch of  The Origins of Happiness by Andrew Clark, Sarah Flèche, Richard Layard, Nick Powdthavee and George Ward. Prof. Layard outlines the key findings and recommendations from the research.

Over the course of our lives, what factors stand out as having the biggest impact on our wellbeing? All else being equal, what single element, or group of elements, make a difference to how anxious or dissatisfied we are with our lives?

I and my colleagues looked at the evidence from survey data on over 100,000 individuals in Australia, Germany, the UK and the US to discover what the origins of happiness might be.

What did we find?

  • Schools and teachers matter: Schools and individual teachers have a huge effect on the happiness of their children. Indeed, the school that children attend affects their happiness nearly as much as it affects their academic performance.
    What’s more, if we wish to predict which children will lead satisfying adult lives, the best indicator is their emotional health at age 16. This is more important than their academic qualifications right up to the age of 25 – and more important than their behaviour in childhood.
  • Children’s emotional health is vital: The best predictor of an adult’s life satisfaction is their emotional health as a child.
  • Relationships count: Most human misery is due not to economic factors but to failed relationships and physical and mental illness. Even in poor countries, mental illness accounts for more misery than physical illness does.
  • Tackle mental illness: Eliminating depression and anxiety would reduce misery by 20% while eliminating poverty would reduce it by 5%. Mental illness deserves a much greater share of resources in every country.
  • Rethink inequality: The fundamental inequality between people is the inequality of wellbeing, not the inequality of income. Those who most need help are the miserable, whatever the reasons for their misery.
  • Life satisfaction predicts elections: In European elections since 1970, the life satisfaction of the people is the best predictor of whether the government gets re-elected – much more important than economic growth, unemployment or inflation.

What does this mean for policy in the UK?

Public policy needs a new focus: not ‘wealth creation’ but ‘wellbeing creation’. Public expenditure, taxation and regulation should increasingly be based on evidence about how they affect the subjective wellbeing of the people.

Andrew Clark of the Paris School of Economics is a professorial research fellow of the Centre for Economic Performance. Sarah Flèche is a research officer in CEP’s wellbeing programme. Richard Layard is founder director of CEP and its wellbeing programme. Nick Powdthavee and George Ward are research associates in CEP’s wellbeing programme.


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