Most human misery is not down to economic factors but to failed relationships and mental illness. That's according to researchers at 'The Wellbeing Programme', a department at the London School of Economics.
Their new report indicates that eliminating depression and anxiety would reduce misery by 20%, while eliminating poverty would reduce it by just 5%.
The program's director, Lord Richard Layard, is a former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He's been studying the pursuit of happiness for more than a decade and believes that contrary to what some may dismiss as a wishy-washy 'blue-sky thinking' enterprise, creating policy around the subject of happiness should be taken as seriously by governments as issues like education and health.
In his study, the Origins of Happiness, which analyzed survey data from 200,000 people across four countries, Lord Layard claims that on average people have become no happier in the last 50 years, despite average incomes more than doubling.
He argues that governments should not ignore this, and should focus more on helping citizens to improve their well-being, more than their bank balances.
Lord Layard said:
"This demands a new role for the state-not 'wealth creation' but 'well-being creation'.
"In the past, the state has successively taken on poverty, unemployment, education and physical health. But equally important now are domestic violence, alcoholism, depression and anxiety conditions, alienated youth, exam-mania and much else. These should become center stage."
In explaining why wages don not play as big a role in shaping happiness as some might expect, the study points to people contextualizing their income, based on the average of the area they live in.
As a result, increases in income or education have little effect on the overall happiness of the population, as averages rise.
Researchers say this helps to explain why in the UK, Australia, Germany and the United States, average happiness has failed to rise since records began, despite significant increases in living standards.
On a scale of 1 to 10, the doubling of someone's pay saw their happiness rise by less than 0.2.
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However, having a partner saw happiness rise by 0.6. Conversely, losing a partner by separation or death saw the same impact downwards.
"People need to be needed, and to be in meaningful relationships," the study found.
Report co-author Lord Laynard added: "The evidence shows that the things that matter most for our happiness and for our misery are our social relationships and our mental and physical health."