Why life in the UK feels better than ever


There has been lots of talk lately (including by me) about how unhappy and divided the UK is. The vote for Brexit is often described as a cry of pain from suffering people.

So I was stunned to see the chart reprinted below, which comes from the independent Resolution Foundation think-tank and shows that self-reported British life satisfaction is the highest since surveys began in the 1970s. About 93 per cent of Britons now say they are “fairly” or “very” satisfied with their lives.

Resolution reports “a very marked upward drift” since 2000, despite stagnating satisfaction during the financial crisis and since the referendum. Academic experts tell me they believe these findings. Nancy Hey, director of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, says that, contrary to Britain’s doom-ridden national debate: “For most people, things have been getting gently better.” What is going on?

First, a caveat: not everyone is satisfied. About 500,000 Britons — many in poor health, disabled or doing unpaid care work — report low wellbeing across all measures, says Hey. Homeless people suffer too but aren’t captured by Eurobarometer’s surveys or by the UK’s Office for National Statistics’ equally positive studies of wellbeing since 2011.

Associating pockets of unhappiness with the vote for Brexit is tricky. True, the poor Leave-voting areas of Wolverhampton, Knowsley and Oldham have the country’s lowest average wellbeing. However, Remain-supporting London, often derided as a blissful elite bubble, has the lowest self-reported wellbeing of any region, says Resolution.

Meanwhile, retired homeowners aged about 70 — overwhelmingly pro-Brexit — are the UK’s most satisfied citizens. For this particular group, the Leave vote was less a cry of pain than a vote of confidence by very contented people in the country’s ability to go it alone.

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When you ask why most Britons are content, happiness researchers often start by pointing to jobs. About the worst thing for personal life satisfaction is unemployment. Seventy-six per cent of working-age Britons are in work, the highest rate on record.

Admittedly, wages have stagnated and many people have unfulfilling jobs. Still, unfulfilling jobs aren’t new, and any job is better than none. Much maligned as the gig economy is, its workers seem to experience “strong positive effects on mental health”, possibly because they gain more control of their time, report Bénédicte Apouey of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research and Mark Stabile of Insead business school.

Improved physical health has boosted British happiness too. But then we get to intangibles. A strong predictor of national happiness is the share of people agreeing with the statement, “In this country, I am satisfied with my freedom to choose what I do with my life,” says Luisa Corrado of the University of Rome Tor Vergata.

Women and sexual minorities — ie most of the population — have increasingly gained such freedom. That may help explain the EU-wide rise in happiness, suggests Corrado. Twenty-seven of 31 countries with Eurobarometer data covering more than a decade report increased subjective wellbeing. (Self-reported wellbeing has fallen in the US, possibly due to rising inequality, says Corrado.)

Society’s growing emotional literacy also helps. I see this in my own family. In 1940, my grandmother lost a son to disease — an everyday tragedy at the time. Weeks after his death, his teacher wrote to her: “I trust that time is gradually dulling the terrible blow . . . Needless to say, I miss Julius and his ‘willing hands’ about the classroom.” My other grandmother lost a son in an accident. I don’t think either talked about her grief. The stiff upper lip froze unhappiness in place.

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Nowadays it’s easier for people to talk about grief, depression, anxiety or loneliness. That may have helped push the UK’s male suicide rate to the lowest level on record. True, mental-health services are overstretched, but Hey says that support from friends and family often matters more.

There’s a widespread presumption that British social trust has declined. But, in fact, the proportion of those saying that “people can almost always or usually be trusted has remained relatively stable (at about 45 per cent) between 1998 and 2014”, reports the National Centre for Social Research, drawing on the large-scale British Social Attitudes studies. In 2017, the figure jumped to 54 per cent.

The more specific rising British distrust of politicians and journalists may count for less than whether people have someone to collect them from hospital, and safe streets to walk down. Crucially, violent crime (probably including domestic abuse) has declined since the 1990s. Perceived corruption remains relatively low in the UK.

Since the referendum, self-reported British subjective wellbeing has stagnated, finds a study led by Georgios Kavetsos of Queen Mary University of London. Pro-Europeans are predictably upset, but even anti-Europeans saw an early rise in wellbeing melt away, perhaps because Brexit hasn’t been delivered. Even so, British contentment remains about the highest ever measured. As usual, nostalgia is misplaced.

Follow Simon on @KuperSimon or email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

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