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New Research Argues it's Life That Makes Us Sad, Not Debt

Failed romances, toxic friendships, and mental health are real problems. Crippling student loans are not.

Image via Flickr user Terry Madeley

According to a new study released by economic policy analysts Vox, it's your failed romances, toxic friendships, and mental health that's making you more unhappy than debt. The Origins of Happiness Report, compiled by researchers from the London School of Economics, claims social and mental health issues are the source of human misery—much more so than poverty.

The report, presented at a conference on Monday, measured happiness and life satisfaction on a scale from zero ("extremely dissatisfied") to 10 ("extremely satisfied"). Examining government policy over time, the researchers asked, "If we wanted to reduce the numbers in misery, what change would have the biggest effect?" They found "abolishing depression and anxiety" would have four times more impact on happiness than raising all incomes to the 20th percentile—it would also be more effective than ending unemployment or improving physical health.


It's worth pointing out that these answers seem quite obvious. Of course we can expect to feel happy by eliminating emotions that make us unhappy. But what's unexpected is the way that this report—compiled by economists—suggests that arranging our societies around economics is fundamentally flawed.

Pointing to survey data from Australia, Britain, Germany, and the US, the researchers note that while people's average incomes have doubled over the past 50 years, we're still as sad as ever. All things being equal, it wasn't poverty or unemployment that distinguished unhappy people from happy people—it was mental illness.

"The biggest distinguishing feature (other things equal) is neither poverty nor unemployment but mental illness," the report reads. "And it explains more of the misery in the community than physical illness does."

The Origins of Happiness research asserts that governments and schools should heighten their focus on tackling mental health issues, prioritising them over economic growth. Governments would benefit from prioritising mental health, as the life satisfaction of people within their electorate was a strong predictor of whether or not they would get re-elected.

As the report notes, tackling mental health is also a cost effective strategy to improve happiness. By the researchers' calculations, raising more people out of poverty would cost around AU$304,359 each year, per person. The bill for treating more people for depression and anxiety, on the other hand, would come in around AU$16,913 per person.

The Origins of Happiness research is led by economist Lord Richard Layard, the founder of Action For Happiness—"a movement of people committed to building a happier society by making positive changes in their personal lives, homes, workplaces and communities." He's argued for years that happiness and wellbeing relies on strong relationships and mental health rather than income. "Tackling depression and anxiety would be four times as effective as tackling poverty," Layard told the Guardian.

Of course, it's difficult to separate economic and mental health factors in the real world. The relationship between poverty and poor mental health has been well-documented in psychology research. However, other researchers have found that tackling mental health can lead to increased economic prosperity. For his part, Layard stressed he's not arguing against reducing income inequality, but rather emphasising that a focus on mental health and relationships would have a far greater impact on happiness.

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