Tag Archives: happiness

What has the Covid crisis taught us about happiness?

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we define our happiness. In this blog, David Tross, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Geography, discusses how the crisis has changed society and definitions of happiness. 

Cup of coffee with smiley face

Given what we experienced in 2020 (and on into 2021), it might seem inappropriate to consider a pandemic and happiness as having much to do with one another. And in many ways, levels of happiness in the UK followed the bad news. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has been measuring the nation’s happiness for almost a decade now and it has barely shifted over that time. Austerity, Brexit turmoil —none of these made a dent, until March when the first national lockdown was announced. Then, life satisfaction and everyday mood plummeted while anxiety rocketed. But by summer, with the easing of restrictions, these happiness indicators had pretty much returned to pre-Covid levels.

This resilience may also be testament to a key phenomenon identified by happiness researchers — the extraordinary ability of people to adapt to changes in circumstances and, after the initial shock, to shift their expectations to whatever the ‘new normal’ might be. This ‘adaptation’ principle explains why chasing riches produce what economists call ‘low marginal gains’ in happiness terms: you get used to your new-found wealth quite quickly and need to keep accumulating to maintain the same level of wellbeing (yes, just like addiction). New stimuli, both positive and negative, will make quite short-term, dramatic differences to wellbeing; before long, most people revert back to their normal happiness levels. So it was with lockdown. People adapted, found alternative ways to pass the time and got on with things.

But lockdown wasn’t merely tolerated. There were aspects of it people really rather liked. A clue is in the fourth indictor the ONS uses to gauge happiness, often termed the ‘eudemonic’ measure– reflecting a tradition associated with Aristotle that happiness is more than simply feeling good but is connected to the meaningful pursuits and good relationships of our lives – that asks people whether they feel their life is worthwhile. Unlike levels of anxiety, mood and life satisfaction, this measure remained relatively stable throughout 2020. Sure, some of what we find worthwhile (an active social and cultural life for example), took a hit, But the enforced hiatus from normal life that we never expected to inhabit –many dreamt of escaping the rat race; few thought the race itself would stop –has, for some at least, led to realisations and re-evaluations about the way they live.

Because by June, the ONS was reporting that almost half of us had identified some positive benefits of lockdown. One was work-related: not having to commute and spend long hours in the office (one UK wellbeing at work issue is that we put in more hours than most equivalent European nations but get less done!). Other benefits were spending more time with family (particularly quality time with children), appreciating a slower pace of life and connecting with the natural environment. People cooked more and did more exercise. During a guest lecture for UCEN Manchester students, one participant provided a neat formula for staying sane during lockdown: ‘run, plant, bake. Repeat’.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Most of the activities research studies have shown to be associated with happiness –loving relationships, achieving things, the arts, nature, doing things for others – were still possible during lockdown. Volunteering is another activity associated with happiness. ‘For me’, says Karl Wilding, CEO of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), ‘Covid demonstrated that people want to be part of something bigger’. Not only did the one million plus people volunteering (only the tip of the philanthropic iceberg) constitute what the NCVO called ‘the largest peacetime mobilisation in British history’, there was a demonstrable uplift in what might be termed ‘community spirit’: more people felt that others were helping one another, they were more confident that others would help them if needed, and they were checking on neighbours far more than normal. In common adversity, solidarity. Maybe Nietzsche was right when he suggested that human societies ‘build their cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!’.

Of course, even precarious living is subject to the adaptation principle. When danger becomes the new normal, it is hard to maintain this collective spirit. In addition, social solidarity depends not just on feeling connected to a larger entity but also on the idea of shared experience across social groups. This has already faded. Recent reports from the Institute of Fiscal Studies lays out in painstaking detail the ways in which the crisis has both highlighted and deepened the profound social inequalities of UK life. Going forward, unemployment – a key predictor of unhappiness– looks set to rise steeply; a really alarming bit of data picked up from a recent ONS survey was that a third of the population, and half of all renters and parents, say they would not be able to afford an unexpected emergency payment of £850.

Happiness is inseparable from its social context. Every year the UN commissions a ‘World Happiness Report’ and one theme is persistent: the happiest countries spend a higher percentage of GDP on social support systems. Therefore, during the first lockdown, the policy environment became more happiness-friendly. Witness not just furlough but also getting ‘everyone in’ off the streets, suspending housing evictions and benefit sanctions. One Department for Work and Pensions worker told me that advisors ‘no longer felt like cops’ and could offer a more efficient service when clients felt they could speak openly about their problems without a punitive threat. Pre-Covid, a softening of social attitudes towards welfare recipients were being observed in reports like the British Social Attitudes Survey, and it is hard to imagine this reversing any time soon.

In 2020 the state was back, and it felt friendlier. But will this turn out to be just a glimpse of something more hopeful and not a decisive shift? This year has given some actual substance to some of the vague nostrums rolled out by politicians: the big society, the good society, all sectors working together towards a common goal. As vaccines are rolled out, we may not be living on the slopes of Vesuvius for much longer, but we should be mindful of what Covid has taught us about happiness, on a macro level about a more generous politics and on a personal level that the mantra of happiness- Carpe Diem! has two meanings. One, invoked by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and by T-shirts, mugs and online dating profiles, refers to the hot pursuit of happiness. But the aphorism has been re-purposed for our frenetic age. its original meaning pays tribute to the moderate happiness philosophy of Epicurus whose idea of seizing the day was not grabbing it by the scruff of its neck. Rather, cultivate simple joys and appreciate what we have instead of always seeking more. For, he wrote, ‘nothing is sufficient for he who finds sufficiency too little’.

Other ancient philosophies had good lockdowns. The Stoic creed of equanimity seems a bit dreary when there’s fun to be had. But in times of adversity, to face one’s fears, accept what we can’t control and still retain a sense of dignity never seemed so apposite. In a timely piece, writer Brigid Delaney recalled the Roman Philosopher Seneca, who, exiled by the state, cut off from his friends, wealth and influence, began to reconcile himself with the enforced simplicity and seclusion of his reduced circumstances, noting that ‘until we have begun to go without them, we fail to recognise how unnecessary things are’. Or, as one UCEN Manchester student put it: ‘the things we thought mattered, didn’t matter’.

 

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Did the London 2012 Olympics boost the British economy and make us all happier?

This blog was contributed by Mark Panton, a researcher from the Department of Management at Birkbeck, in reaction to a recent publication by the ONS, which links GDP to special historical events. Mark tweets at @MarkLPanton

olympics-227178_640As a researcher of the use of sport events and stadiums in regeneration projects I was interested in a   recent graphical representation of how special events are linked to UK Gross Domestic Product (GDP) put out by the Office for National statistics (ONS). The representation showed a sharp spike in GDP at the time of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

There has been a long-running debate within sport management about whether or not hosting major sporting events can have an impact on local or even national economies.  At first sight this ONS graphic, together with its accompanying text, sets out a very positive case for the 2012 Olympics.  The highest growth for nearly seven years in the UK was recorded in the third quarter of 2012 when it increased by 1.1% over the previous quarter.   This included increased output in the food and beverages industries, accommodation, employment agencies and creative arts and entertainments.  Was this conclusive evidence for the economic impact of a major sporting event?

Further explanatory details were provided by a separate ONS document.  Due to an additional day of holiday in June for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, there was one fewer working day than usual in the second quarter.  This was estimated to have shaved 0.4% off growth in that period with a ‘bounce-back’ of the same amount in the third quarter.  Another relevant aspect was that the sales of Olympic and Paralympic tickets, clocked up over a long period before the start of the Olympics and totalling £580 million, were all allocated to the third quarter of 2012.  This figure contributed 0.2 percentage points to overall growth.  It should also be noted that the same document details a drop in tourism in this quarter, with a significant dip in numbers visiting London.  Far from the conclusive evidence that might have been imagined from the graphical representation.

However, there was some good news for those looking to stage major events and the local communities. A detailed report by Oxford Economics on the impact of the London Olympics suggested the event may increase residents’ happiness, which could translate into increased consumer spending. This claim was based in part on research linked to the 1996 Euro Championships in England. The report acknowledges that the evidence for such effects is mixed and no figures for increased spending around the London Olympics based on happiness have been found.

Researchers from the LSE did find that Londoners were significantly happier during the Games compared to Parisians and Berliners, but that levels of happiness returned to normal the following year. More critically, researchers in the USA have argued against the use of “psychic income” (emotional and psychological benefits for residents related to sporting events) to support public subsidies for stadiums or events, with the concept being used as the “new frontier in subsidy apologias”. The arguments over the economic and psychic benefits of holding major sporting events are likely to continue.

Listen to Mark in a discussion on Sports stadiums on the Birkbeck Voices podcast.

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Today is happiness day, but could greater happiness be a permanent reality?

David TrossThis post was contributed by David Tross, associate lecturer at Birkbeck. David is running a series of workshops on happiness and wellbeing as part of Birkbeck’s Pop-up University in Willesden Green, which is running until the end of May.

The 20 March is the UN International Day of Happiness, recognizing, it says, ‘the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives’. If you visit the UN’s observance day website, happy images include Ban Ki Moon dancing ‘gangnam style’ with puffy South Korean popster Psy, though paradoxically its text also recommends marking the occasion ‘in an appropriate manner, including through education and public awareness-raising activities.’ If this doesn’t sound particularly joyful, the UK organisation Action for happiness suggests a range of everyday activities to increase your happiness and those around you. If hugging strangers on the street sounds more dangerous than life-enhancing, then other ideas, including mindfulness meditation and keeping gratitude journals, are in keeping with older, eastern and western philosophical notions of how to live a good life.

What’s new is the shift in the claims made about the efficacy of these methods, with many contemporary scholars hailing happiness as a ‘new science’ on the basis of developments in measuring happiness that can be applied not just to individuals but to whole countries. The latest World Happiness Report, taking measures of self-reported life satisfaction and mood data from 156 countries, has proclaimed Denmark as the happiest country in the world, with fellow Scandinavian countries following close behind. (The UK is in 22nd place). Forget the bleakness and bad weather of popular scandi-noir TV shows, the research suggests. Denmark’s secret? Social equality, socialising across social classes, generous childcare policies, realistic personal expectations and a cozy spirit of togetherness the Danes call ‘hygge’ ( the closest translation might be the Irish ‘craic’). Although the scientific validity of these measures have been questioned, particularly  in terms  of cross-country comparisons, the findings are supported by claims brought to the public’s attention in 2008 with the publication of The Spirit Level, that the most unequal countries perform worst across a range of wellbeing indicators including trust, mental health, drug addiction, obesity and literacy.

This is the happiness paradox in action: after basic needs have been met, increased wealth has not produced greater happiness in rich countries, the gains made in life expectancy and income cancelled out by the personal and social stresses of a competitive, materialistic society. If happiness and wellbeing provides an alternative measure of social progress to economic growth then surely we should be encouraged by the enthusiasm of politicians, with David Cameron’s commissioning of an ONS-led UK happiness index the latest in a series of government-backed initiatives in France, Canada and the original happiness pioneers, the tiny nation of Bhutan. But some are suspicious. Government-backed happiness is the dystopian vision of Huxley’s Brave New World, where everybody feels good and nobody is free. And if the number of people relying on food banks to survive has tripled over the last year, why are we wasting our time on happiness when there are more pressing concerns? As the philosopher Julian Baggini has noted, ‘If you look at the countries that do best in surveys of wellbeing, they haven’t got there by having these indices. They’ve got there by agreeing what priorities should be”.

Such concerns are understandable in the context of recent ONS data suggesting the UK has become happier from 2012 to 2013; instead of an antidote, happiness measures could be used to legitimise austerity economics and increasing inequality.

The British economist Richard Layard declares that ‘happiness must be the business of government’. yet his policy recommendations, including spending to alleviate unemployment and poverty, sound almost socialist. Could it be that the happiness agenda could be a way of sneaking the politically taboo concepts of social justice and greater income equality in through the back door? Should you eliminate poverty because it makes people (including the rich) unhappy, or because it is the right thing to do? The answer might be to create the wider social and economic conditions conducive to individual fulfilment and not micro-manage the personal paths. But paradoxically, happiness is serious. Scroll along from the dancing UN secretary general on the UN website and you get a caption celebrating ten years of peace in Liberia. No disrespect to Psy, but that’s the kind of happiness many more would get behind.

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Beat ‘Blue Monday’ – tips for improving your happiness

This post was contributed by Dr Amy Harrison, PhD, DClinPsy. Dr Harrison is a Clinical Psychologist and teaches Positive Psychology as an Associate Lecturer. Her clinical work focuses on helping young people with eating disorders and her research focuses on how people manage emotions and experience pleasure from social interaction. 

‘Blue Monday’ – the third Monday in January (today) – has been reported as one of the grimmest days of the year. Although there may be no hard science behind this assertion, it’s easy to understand why it’s developed this reputation. The merriment of Christmas has long since faded but the mountains of credit card debt remain as we struggle through to payday; New Year Resolutions have fallen by the wayside; and the next Bank Holiday feels an aeon away.

However, there are ways that you can tackle these ‘blue’ feelings.

It’s important to remember that it’s not what happens to you, but what you make of it that is important. Research from the field of positive psychology, which aims to understand the science of happiness and wellbeing, suggests that there are things we can all do to manage the daily grind with greater ease.

My tips include:

  1. Make an effort to look out for positive things during the day – we can train ourselves to notice more of the good stuff, no matter how small.
  2. Do something for others – give up your seat on the train, feed a parking meter or smile at a stranger. You’ll be surprised at how warm this makes you feel.
  3. Count your blessings – write about something you’re grateful for, or thank someone for helping you.
  4. Look at a picture of your favourite person, experience or animal – research has shown that this can significantly improve your mood.

Many people might be surprised to hear that these small actions can have such a positive impact on mood. However, it’s worth a go – one thing that can be guaranteed is that if you don’t try anything different, things will stay the same.

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