The scientific study of happiness and wellbeing is still in its infancy, but research can give us some idea of what factors are important.
We have reason to believe, for example, that the factors that cause mental illness are often related to lower happiness. We see a very strong negative correlation in Europe between countries that report high levels of depression and those who claim to be happy. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that policies aimed at increasing the average happiness of a population also will reduce the proportion with mental illnesses and disorders. This pattern can be observed in other areas. For example, studies show a very strong relationship between average alcohol consumption in a country and the proportion of alcoholics. Scientists have inferred that an overall reduction in alcohol consumption may be more effective than targeted interventions for individuals with alcohol problems1. There is reason to believe that this “holistic approach” can at least in part be utilized for an effective policy of happiness.
Below we suggest a number of areas that are important to highlight from a social policy perspective. They are just a sample of the possibilities that further research might suggest. We have particularly emphasised the areas that are normally not addressed sufficiently in the public debate. The proposals are not mutually ranked.
1. Preserve and develop the institutions and the social climate that made Swedes happy
There are reasons to believe that the high level of happiness in Sweden is at least in part due to the citizen’s high levels of trust, low corruption, well-functioning social institutions, and the relatively tolerant and individualistic social climate. Sweden's low unemployment and good economic standard probably matters. It is obviously important to preserve all this and, to the extent that doing so is consistent with the other proposals, to further promote the development of these social factors.
2. Facilitate a more flexible use of time
An increased focus on people's use of time and their activities can be of great importance to improving the wellbeing of society. Previous studies suggest that individuals who spend time on active leisure activities are happier than those who spend much time in passive activities. We can also see among Swedes that individuals who spend lots of time with friends, who get involved in charity work and who are physically active, on average, feel better than those who spend less time on these activities. One suggestion is that politicians and other decision makers focus more on people's use of time as an important social issue.
According to the European Social Survey, 27 percent of Swedes say they are dissatisfied with the balance between work and leisure and 30 percent claim that they rarely have time to do things that they like. Reduced working hours have been discussed from time to time in Swedish political debate. A reduction may be beneficial because it frees up time for people that they can spend on more enjoyable activities (such as active leisure activities). Other effects on working life and the economy and environment must, of course, be taken into consideration.
3. Introduce happiness-promoting education in schools
An important step in developing a happier society is to encourage children and young people still in school. A team of US researchers has designed the “Penn Resiliency Program” for use in schools, which teaches children to become more optimistic and to better be able to handle adversity. The program is based on cognitive behavioral therapy and gave positive results in several studies2. FRIENDS is a new program with similar orientation which was also proven effective in a number of studies3. None of these programs have been evaluated scientifically in Sweden, but we think it would be a good idea to test such interventions in Swedish conditions.
It would be a good idea to introduce more sports in school. As with similar studies from other countries, we can see a relationship between physical activity and happiness in the Swedish population. Although the causal direction of the correlation is unclear, there is reason to believe that physical activity may contribute to a higher welfare. A number of studies suggest for example that physical activity is an effective method for reducing symptoms of depression4.
4. Promote social relationships
Good social relationships are without doubt one of the most important factors for a happy life. According to the European Social Survey, about 7 percent of the population have no close friends with whom they can discuss personal issues. About 30 percent spend time with family and friends less than once a week. We see that both of these groups are more unhappy than the average.
Politicians should consider how we can create better conditions for people to rebuild their social networks. It might be venues for the elderly, youth clubs for adolescents and increased support for community activities. Various options should be considered.
5. Inform people about happiness research results
Happiness research can provide valuable information to people about important life decisions. We generally find it difficult to predict how our choices affect our wellbeing. We generally underestimate how quickly we will adapt to external changes and we put excessive emphasis on material factors. For example, people overestimate how much a higher income, a warm climate or a loving relationship affects their wellbeing5 6.
Another example is commuting. Several studies indicate that commuting to work is one of the worst activities for our wellbeing7 8. One study also found that those who have long commuting trips (at least one hour) to work have higher incomes and spend considerably more money on consumption than the average person9 Yet this group had only an average level of life satisfaction. It is likely that the negative effect of long commutes is often overlooked when people make decisions regarding work and finance. Here happiness research can provide information that people can reflect on before making important life decisions. For example, if it's worth taking a job that provides a higher income but leads to a longer commute.
6. Introduce regular measures of the happiness of the population
There is an idea that we are good at achieving what we are measuring. Measuring something makes us take it more seriously and it is by means of measurements that we can determine whether things are moving in a positive or negative direction. Both the OECD and the UN are now considering making measures of happiness and wellbeing a part of their reports on human development. Sweden should follow the same path and implement standardised measurements of the Swedish people's happiness. It is probably unrealistic to think that the government should be able to choose a single measure of happiness or adopt a “happiness index”, but several measurements can be combined to give a fair picture of how people feel. These could include measures of overall wellbeing – the presence of positive and negative emotions, life satisfaction – but also measures of depression and other mental illnesses. A regular collection of such data can then be used to analyze how social change and political decisions affect the Swedish people's happiness. New and more reliable methods to measure happiness are constantly evolving. As the measurement methods are refined, the results will become ever more reliable.
In addition to the direct measurement of human happiness, we should also measure and examine related factors. How do people spend their time? How are their social relations? How optimistic or pessimistic are they? Such questions are essential to investigate and follow up as these factors are key determinants of happiness.
7. Promote happiness in other countries
Happiness research shows that happiness is systematically higher in rich countries than in poor. These results may seem obvious, but economic development is certainly a diminishing marginal utility. There are good reasons to believe that happiness in a rich country like Sweden does not increase significantly at high GDP growth rates. Offering more assistance to poorer countries where financial resources might be of greater use can be extremely cost-effective. Of course, this requires that this transfer of resources leads to greater positive impact on recipient countries than the resources would in Sweden.
8. Support the groups who are most unhappy
Although most Swedes are relatively happy there is a large group, comprising about a million people, whose members feel bad and exhibit signs of depression and other psychological disorders. Most people would probably agree that it should be a top priority of society to help these people to live a better life. In addition to the other proposals outlined here, there is reason to believe that specific measures for the group suffering from depression or other mental disorders should be considered.
A new meta-study has shown that psychotherapy is effective, and that cost-effective solutions such as guided self-help and internet therapy in many cases are as effective as psychotherapy for depression and anxiety disorders10. It therefore seems reasonable that more counties should follow Stockholm County Council, which, in collaboration with the Karolinska Institute, offers online therapy to county’s residents. Mental illness is an important gender issue since women are overrepresented among people with symptoms of depression and mental illness. It is also important to ensure that all people have their basic socio-economic necessities. Depression and unhappiness are over-represented among the sick, the unemployed, and those with low income. In accordance with the law of diminishing marginal utility, it seems reasonable to favour an extended redistribution of resources to these groups.
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