What is happiness? It’s one of those questions that’s vexed great minds down the ages, including the Peanuts creator, Charles M. Schulz, who famously said: ‘Happiness is a warm puppy.’
I hate to contradict one of my favourite philosophers but, thanks to the World Happiness Report, produced every March by the United Nations Development Network, we now have more reliable ways of measuring happiness than the ‘warm puppy index’, as well as predicting what will make us happy.
The report is based on surveys carried out by Gallup World Poll involving more than 1.6 million people from 156 countries.
Although we all have our ups and downs, the average scores for countries doesn’t usually change much from year to year — except for last year when the UK became a markedly less happy place
One of the questions people are asked is to place themselves on a ladder, depending on how happy they feel about their lives — imagine the top of the ladder scores ten (i.e. you’re blissfully happy), the bottom is zero.
Without thinking too hard, try it yourself. I gave myself an eight, lucky enough to have a supportive wife, great kids, good friends, decent health and a job I enjoy, all things that predict happiness.
The average score for people in the UK is normally around seven, compared to 7.9 if you live in Finland and 2.5 if you live in Afghanistan.
Although we all have our ups and downs, the average scores for countries doesn’t usually change much from year to year — except for last year when the UK became a markedly less happy place.
In 2020, as it has for the past four years, Finland was at the top of the happiness league, followed closely by Iceland, Denmark and Switzerland.
The UK, which normally comes in at around number 13, slid down to 18, overtaken by Ireland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Belgium and the U.S. Worldwide, people proved to be remarkably resilient in the face of what has been a truly disastrous year.
One of the questions people are asked is to place themselves on a ladder, depending on how happy they feel about their lives — imagine the top of the ladder scores ten (i.e. you’re blissfully happy), the bottom is zero
According to the report, this is largely because the pandemic has broadened our perspective and made us appreciate that we’re part of a wider society.
Threatened by a common enemy, we’ve shown a willingness to volunteer and help others through the hard times.
Being supported, and supporting others, is one of the best ways to boost happiness, and we’ve seen lots of examples of that over the past 12 months.
My elderly mother, who has been sheltering alone, has been really touched by all the offers of help from her neighbours, and I think that things such as clapping for the NHS have also brought people together.
Interestingly, the countries that have, over the years, consistently scored highest on the happiness index are also those that have handled the Covid-19 crisis particularly well. That seems to be because of ‘trust’.
Whether it is trust in your government or trust in your fellow humans, this is both a major predictor of happiness and a predictor of whether you’ll follow the rules and do things such as wear face masks and wash your hands.
Why has the UK been overtaken by other countries? There does seem to have been a drop in trust, caused by the Government’s early mishandling of the pandemic. It will be interesting to see if, thanks to the vaccine success, we make up ground next year.
The UK also saw a significant rise in anxiety and depression, particularly amongst young people. Studies suggest that around one in five of the population now suffers from mental health problems they didn’t have a year ago.
That said, 2020 was clearly a bad year for young people everywhere, with high rates of unemployment and far fewer opportunities to socialise. And this is reflected in the one of the report’s most striking findings.
Previous research has suggested that happiness follows a U-shaped curve, with people reporting being pretty happy in their 20s, then become glummer as they begin to approach middle age, before hitting rock bottom at around 50. Then they typically start to become perkier, until they reach old age.
Threatened by a common enemy, we’ve shown a willingness to volunteer and help others through the hard times. Being supported, and supporting others, is one of the best ways to boost happiness, and we’ve seen lots of examples of that over the past 12 months
This pattern probably reflects the fact that, in our 20s, we see the world as our oyster, but that as we get older we realise many of our dreams aren’t going to come true. By our late 50s, we’ve come to terms with how our lives have turned out, and increasingly find happiness in friends and family.
This year, however, the age-happiness graph looks very different. Young people are less happy than those in their 30s, who are less happy than those in their 40s, and so on. But the over 60s, despite the threat of Covid, seem to be remarkably cheerful.
One of the main reasons seems to be that they say they feel healthier, even though the evidence shows they’re not!
Perceived health is a big predictor of happiness and the percentage of men over 60 who say they have a health problem fell from 46 per cent previously to 36 per cent in 2020. For women, the percentage fell from 51 to 42.
It seems that for people over 60, like me, the threat of Covid has put everything else into perspective.
Knowing we’ve so far dodged the bullet is cause for celebration. As I said at the outset, happiness is not fixed, so I fervently hope we are heading for happier times, particularly for the young.
Too much time spent sitting in front of screens is not good for our eyes — not only can it be tiring, but it can leave your eyes feeling gritty and red, as I’ve found after so many video meetings.
Staring at a screen means your blink rate drops to around a third of normal, from 15 to 18 times a minute to just five: and this is a problem because blinking lubricates and cleans your eyes.
One of the best ways to counteract digital eye strain is the 20/20/20 rule: every 20 minutes, get up and stare out at an object 20 feet away, for 20 seconds.
This relaxes your eye muscles and increases your blink rate, giving your eyeballs a good wash.
The latest weapon against aches and pain? Leeks…
I’ve had plenty of injuries in my time, including breaking my leg and falling off my bike, so I’m quite familiar with pain. I count my blessings that, unlike an estimated 30 million Britons, I’ve not had to endure chronic pain.
And, tragically, the pandemic is making things worse for them. A survey from Edinburgh University last week found that the number of NHS patients waiting for hip and knee replacements (usually for arthritis), with pain which they classified as ‘worse than death’, doubled over the past year.
What can be done? There’s now an understandable reluctance to prescribe powerful painkillers thanks to publicity about the over-use of opioids. Nor are these drugs particularly effective for chronic pain.
What’s urgently needed are new ways of treating pain. This is where a non-surgical procedure called genicular artery embolization (GAE) comes in.
Another step is a diet rich in prebiotics, found in onions, garlic and leeks, which are converted by the ‘good’ bacteria in the gut into anti-inflammatory chemicals
The idea is that rather than replace the knee joint, a doctor inserts a tube into the arteries that supply it, then squirts in tiny plastic particles.
When cartilage starts to break down, it releases enzymes that cause local inflammation and pain. The theory is that the plastic particles reduce blood flow to the lining of the knee, which reduces inflammation and pain.
A new study, from the University of California, Los Angeles, with 40 patients, found that within a week of having GAE, their average pain scores dropped from eight out of ten, to three — and patients who’d previously been unable to walk more than a few hundred yards could now walk several miles daily. A year later, 70 per cent still had massive reductions in their pain.
Prevention is better than cure, so to help avoid arthritis — or reduce the pain — losing weight is key, reducing the load on the joint and inflammation.
Simple, daily exercise can also help, building up the muscle to support the joint.
Another step is a diet rich in prebiotics, found in onions, garlic and leeks, which are converted by the ‘good’ bacteria in the gut into anti-inflammatory chemicals.
Studies with mice have shown prebiotics can prevent arthritis, even in severely overweight animals, and human studies are under way.