listening to musicPeople living in 1957 were happier than people are today – and happiness levels have not reached those levels in the intervening 60 years, according to research.

Research by the Social Market Foundation and the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE) found that although in 1957 life expectancies were lower, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was lower, more hours were worked in a typical week and few households had central heating and less than half owned a television, levels of public happiness were at a height never reached again in the British post-War period.

The CAGE report explored the relationship between happiness and public policy. Traditionally, the growth of GDP has been the chief measurement of success of government policy in the West. However, more recently attention has turned to ‘happiness’ – should policymakers turn their attention to increasing happiness in the same way that they seek to increase GDP?

Happiness does not appear to rise in accordance with GDP, the researchers found, yet growth of GDP is commonly treated as the highest aim of public policy. The researchers theorised this may be due to something missing from our historical understanding of the relationship between happiness and growth.

Researchers examined the same country over a significant period of time. To compare and contrast levels of GDP and levels of happiness, researchers turned to Google Books. More than 8 million books have been digitised by Google Books, which gave researchers hundreds of billions of words to sift through when looking for patterns. The term valence is used to signify the emotion contained in a word. Words with high ratings indicate that they are associated with positive emotions; words with low ratings with negative ones. High valence words included ‘enjoyment’, ‘vacation’ and ‘peaceful’. Low valence words included ‘murder’, ‘disease’ and ‘starvation’.

Researchers found no connection between economic growth and the state of human happiness in the long run, but that economic instability and downturns such as recessions and economic collapse of the magnitude of the Great Depression do lead to plummeting levels of wellbeing.

The report concluded that happiness is a relative concept: it depends on things like expectations and aspirations, and these have changed since Victorian times. If we have much higher aspirations now than a century ago, then the report suggests that this could be one reason why there seems to be a good deal of unhappiness around today.

Daniel Sgroi, one of the report’s authors and associate professor at the University of Warwick, said: “A greater focus on happiness in policy-making could also shape policy-making procedures right from their conception.

“If this approach were taken to its logical conclusion, the next public spending round in a nation like the UK would consist of the different government departments presenting their sets of policies with estimated costs and happiness benefits.”

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Happiness and mental health are inextricably linked. It is worrying indeed that happiness levels reached their peak 60 years ago, a level to which they have never returned.

“The NHS Digital Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey revealed in 2014 that one in three adults (37%) aged 16-74 in England with conditions such as anxiety or depression were accessing mental health treatment. This was an increase from one in four (24%) since the last survey in 2007.

“Improving better access to mental health services is crucial if barriers to achieving happiness are to be broken down.

“The job of government is not to make people happy - that is most determined by the quality of our interpersonal relationships. By promoting good health, making our streets safer, ensuring better quality of care and helping people into meaningful employment we can however create the conditions for a happier society. Finally, happiness is about fairness – In short; an unequal society is an unhappy society.”