Life is good! Why do we feel bad?

We’ve tried shopping and Modern Age cures,
making money and spending it.
We’re still miserable.
What’s missing from our lives?

Did you notice an outbreak of joviality and generosity last week? People beaming at you as they let you go ahead in the bus queue, grinning as the shared your morning traffic jam, smirking through the quarterly budget planning meeting?

No? The organisers of National Smile Week will be down in the mouth. All their efforts to perk us up for at least seven days have run, it seems, in the sand of our collective skepticism. Four out of ten of us think life has become worse in the past five years. Two million of us are on antidepressants; only a minority of us think ‘people can be trusted most of the time’. Mix in some road/air/office/phone rage, a rise in reported incivility and a good dose of political apathy and the gloom looks even starker. We’re a wretched lot.

All this when average house prices have just blasted through the £100,000 mark, when life expectancy continues to lengthen, mortality rates are dropping and more than a third of young people enjoy what was once the elite privilege of higher education. We are healthy, wealthy and wise. Yet we’ve never felt so bad.

If we seem like a nation of ingrates it may be because all the goodies that are supposed to make us happy don’t do it for us any more — even if we have yet to wake up to the fact. So, your house is worth half a million. Karl Marx, who for all his faults knew a bit about capitalism, captured the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses dynamic of market economies perfectly: ‘A house may be large or small; as long as the neighbouring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all the social requirements of a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace and the little house shrinks to a hut.’ With mass media, the palace doesn’t have to be next door — it can be beamed into our living rooms.

Money doesn’t make most of us happy any more. Poor people, understandably, see their life satisfaction rise with income but for most of the population in a country as affluent as ours, any jump-start to well-being from a pay rise quickly wears off. ‘I was window-shopping in the South of France recently and I saw a diamond-studded woolly hat, and I quite fancied it.’ When we get to that stage we should realise that more money isn’t getting us much more in terms of happiness. Harrods is currently carrying a pair of shoes priced at a cool million — imagine  if somebody stepped on your foot.

But what about health? Surely the virtual elimination of most fatal diseases, rising life expectancy and falling mortality should be cheering us up? Not a bit of it. All that happens is that our expectations rise just as or even more quickly. Objectively, our health is better on almost every count, but this doesn’t translate into our feeling any healthier. We are more aware of our health, so we get more anxious about it. Medicine has become a victim of its own success: having massively reduced the chances of death in childbirth, for example, people are now shocked if a life is lost – and reach for a lawyer. Death was unavoidable – now it is unacceptable.

Like the answer to many great problems, however, the
answer to the question of happiness may be quite prosaic: once countries and households are free of material need, the biggest contributor to life satisfaction seems to be a healthy set of personal relationships. The relative happiness of late teenagers and those passing middle age may relate to their spending more time on friendships. The thirtysomethings, fighting on the two fronts of work and children, are the most dejected. Those between full-time education and retirement may be spending more time on the activities they think will make them happy – earning and spending – than on those that actually will: spending time with friends and family.

This friend-shaped gap explains the American paradox – why the residents of the richest nation in the world are so glum – according to Professor Robert E. Lane at Yale University. “There is a kind of famine of warm interpersonal relations, of easy-to-reach neighbours, of encircling, inclusive memberships, and of solid family life,- he says.

The secret of happiness? Not money. So leave the lawn, forget your investments and call in sick tomorrow. Do yourself a favour. Phone a friend.

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