British people are becoming miserable. Earlier this year the BBC published an opinion poll that shows that although we are three times richer than we were 50 years ago, we are also less happy.
The opinion poll by GfK NOP for The happiness formula (a five-week series on BBC 2) indicated that extra wealth has not brought extra well-being. The proportion of people saying they are ‘very happy’ has fallen from 52% in 1957 to just 36% today.
Many organisations have attempted to compare the happiness ratings of different countries. One has Switzerland as the happiest country, followed by Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, USA, with Britain coming eighth. What international happiness research suggests is that once average incomes reach about £10,000 a year, extra money does not make a country happier.
So, why are we unhappier than we were half a century ago? One factor is the decline in supportive social relationships – as society has fragmented, marriages have broken down, and local communities have been undermined.
Research shows that friendships make a big difference to our sense of wellbeing. Those who scored high on life-satisfaction tend to have close caring family and friends, and are part of some kind of community. It seems that our happiness is closely linked to what researchers have called ‘our social capital’ – the sum of all our trusted connections, friends and personal family ties.
The research also suggests that marriage is so good for our well-being that it adds seven years to a man’s life and four to a woman’s! In the light of this, surely, our government should do nothing to discourage marriage and everything possible to encourage it? Yet in the UK all financial incentive to marry has been removed and politicians seem reluctant to make moral judgements about domestic relationships.
What is absolutely fascinating is that all this is in direct accord with the Bible. Genesis 2:18 puts it like this: ‘The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ – after which he instituted the first friendship and the first marriage.
In other words, the Bible tells us that our Maker established a pattern for a healthy society based on friendship and marriage. These are the Designer’s instructions.
The benefit of work
A second key factor is personal significance. The research suggests that contentment is linked with satisfaction – at school, at work, or in a vital role such as homemaker or grandparent. Significant work of some kind seems to be a major factor in happiness.
It does not matter whether the work is paid or voluntary as long as we feel it is meaningful and important.
Again, this is exactly what the Bible’s wisdom reveals. In setting the pattern for healthy living God said we should work – ‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it’ (Genesis 2:15). God’s original plan was not for us to sit on deckchairs, but to be involved in meaningful activity. This has implications for a happy retirement!
A third area – having a negative influence on happiness – is the desire for more money and possessions. Put simply, covetousness makes people unhappy.
Back in 1999 Tony Blair rightly said, ‘Money isn’t everything. But in the past governments have seemed to forget this’.
And the Conservative Party leader David Cameron told the BBC 2 programme, ‘We should be thinking not just what is good for putting money in people’s pockets but what is good for putting joy in people’s hearts’.
Provocatively, LSE economist Professor Layard has said that some advertising should be banned because it makes people feel poor! And according to Ed Mayo, CEO of the National Consumer Council, the Council’s own research suggests that advertising to children can make them unhappier.
Again, it should be no surprise that the Bible got there first. Indeed, the instruction not to covet is one of the Ten Commandments, which were originally given, among other things, as practical guidelines for healthy living. Who needs opinion polls?
One greater than ourselves
According to the poll, a fourth factor enhancing happiness is sense of ‘connection’ to something greater than ourselves. This may be understood in spiritual or religious terms or in terms of a philosophy of life.
Perhaps one reason for this is that it gives us a perspective that helps us view current hardships and frustrations in a broader perspective. On top of this, it gives us an overriding purpose for our lives – in contrast to a sense of pointlessness that undermines happiness.
Again, the Bible made this point thousands of years ago. Man was made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Why? Surely that we might know the transcendent Being who created and sustains us – that we might live in communion with the eternal God.
But mankind’s sinful rebellion against God’s rule has made that impossible – except for those who trust in Jesus Christ, the ‘one Mediator between God and men … who gave himself a ransom for all’ to reconcile sinners to a holy God (1 Timothy 2:5-6).
Now that’s real happiness!