This is one time of year when we’re bombarded with the word ‘happy’. Now, I’m not suggesting I’m a humbug as I’ll wish Happy Christmas and Happy New Year along with the rest of you, but have you ever thought what you really mean and what might really bring happiness? (Relax, I’m not about to come over all Billy Graham on you.)
Ask an economist why we work and what makes us happy - and the answer would be money. You see (or rather I do, having read 34 pages of an academic study entitled ‘Does money buy happiness?’), the central tenet of economics is that money makes people happy and people will therefore be happier if they have more of it.
Just to brighten your week, you might like to know that ‘self-reported wellbeing’ (happiness to you and me) is expressed as r = h(u(y ,z ,t)) + e. Of course, to go into greater detail might risk confusion (on my part if not yours) but, rest assured, that having waded through all the t-ratios and pooled cross-sections within the study, you can take this to be correct.
So if you want a conversation stopper down the pub - something along the lines of “so how about me spreading a little r = h(u(y, z, t)) + e ?” - you can at least rely on the accuracy of your question, even if you can’t on the answer.
Still, to return to the subject, does money buy happiness? Well, yes. The conclusion was that a year after any windfall, your average punter has lower stress levels and higher mental wellbeing.
The study also calculated how much of a windfall it would take to climb each rung of the happiness ladder and to move from the bottom (disenchanted miserable git) to the top (super-laidback, nape of the neck trailing on the floor) would take about £1m.
But what about pay and happiness? “There’s a very strong link between the two,” says Professor Andrew Oswald of Warwick University, joint author of the study, “but it’s all relative. People judge their earnings against others in their peer group. So you can be miserable earning £100,000 if you see your contemporaries earning even more - or extremely happy on £30,000 when your peers earn less”.
But when it comes to low stress and high mental wellbeing, money has a lot less influence than your working environment. Now, you may remember that there was a time when you would leave work and leave most of your work issues there. But the advent of e-mail and the universal use of mobile phones means that that distinction has become completely blurred.
“That is precisely the paradox,” says Oswald. “When asked, we all report moderately high levels of job satisfaction, but at the same time consistently state that stress levels are getting worse - we’re willing workaholics.” According to Oswald’s studies, the big three contributors to stress are commuting times, size of workplace (big equals bad) and long working hours.
On top of this, women tend to get more stressed than men and older people more than the young.
But is stress all the fault of employers anyway - could it be the way we are all trying to live our lives or even something in our national temperament? After all, does it come as any surprise that the Italians are the most stressed people in Europe and the Irish are the least?
As Oswald points out, we only spend about a quarter of our lives at work and, on the whole, we’re remarkably content. But at the same time, universally across Europe, stress levels are increasing.
Quite why this is so is a bit perplexing. Many workplaces are now more cosseting than they ever were. As Oswald puts it: “It’s almost as if levels of stress have grown with the deepness of the carpet.”
Of course the other great cause of stress and unhappiness is working for an overbearing, inconsiderate, incapable boss - and no matter what size the pay packet, it will never be able to compensate.
Now, I’d be the first to admit that you may not be happier having read this column, but at least allow me to be the first to wish you the season’s greetings for self-reported wellbeing… and a decent win on the lottery.
n Simon Howard is a founder of Work Communications and writes the Jobfile column for the Sunday Times