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Are you 16 or 70? Then you will never be happier  

 

What is the secret to life? What Bridget Bardot said? That was a long time ago now and probably apocryphal. Who knows; but here are some pointers.

Apparently people are happiest at ages of 16 and 70.

Can’t possibly be true; but let’s have a look at why the Daily Mail wet their knickers over the research that said it was.

In 2011, David Cameron, before putting up his trotters, instructed the Office for National Statistics to gather data on people’s self-reported happiness and life satisfaction. Little practical good has come from this so far, but a new report by George Bangham for the Resolution Foundation is the latest attempt to make useful sense of the data.

He concludes: “The best prospects for policymakers targeting future increases in national wellbeing lie in raising job quality, raising incomes, particularly at the lower end, and policies to improve security in the housing market.”

However, almost all media coverage has pretty much ignored all this worthy,socialist stuff and instead latched on to the finding that people are happiest at ages 16 and 70.

People, of course, are fascinated by how age, genes, gender, sexuality, weight, diet and ethnicity might determine happiness. Focusing on factors such as these allows us to neatly depoliticise the issue. Some of these factors are things we have no control over, allowing us to resign ourselves to fate. The rest are things we are able to take some personal control over, which makes us feel empowered but also less compassionate towards those who refuse to do the right thing – and less inclined to make governments take their share of responsibility for wellbeing.

But as the author and academic Michael Marmot’s 2010 report, Fair Society Healthy Lives, said, many of the most important determinants of wellbeing have nothing to do with personal choice or destiny. Rather, they are social and, as such, inescapably political.

Two years after Marmot’s report, a new tube map of London was created to highlight inequality in the capital: among its striking findings was that along the Jubilee line, life expectancy falls from 86 in Westminster to 79 in Canning Town – roughly a year for every stop travelled east. This is explained purely by socioeconomic factors.

Even the age correlation turns out to be inextricably linked to politics, despite the fact that no political party can make a difference to your date of birth. The happiness of pensioners is not just a function of their age, but of policy. On average, 70-year-old boomers today are the most affluent retirees in history, often owning their own homes and in receipt of generous pensions. People of 70 are not going to be as content in 30 or 40 years’ time if they are unable to retire, don’t own their homes and have small incomes. The flourishing of pensioners today is not biological destiny, but the fruit of decades of public policy.

However, the age-related findings do shine some light on what we need to do to increase life satisfaction. In one way, the statistical equating of the quantity of happiness of 16 and 70-year-olds obscures the ways in which the quality of that happiness is completely different. A teenager’s joy is rooted in an exciting balance between innocence and experience, actuality and potentiality. An older person’s contentment is usually connected with an end of striving and quieter appreciation of what they have done and what they still can do. This should remind us that life satisfaction is a complex issue and could never be captured on a simple scale of one to 10.

However, there is one respect in which teens and recent retirees are remarkably similar. Compared to other age groups, they tend to inhabit a sweet spot of having high degrees of both freedom and carefreeness. The typical 16-year-old has new freedoms without ever having had any serious responsibilities. The typical 70-year-old, having experienced a lifetime of work and family duties, has a very different kind of freedom, one born from relief.

It should not surprise us to find that people tend to be happier when they have fewer worries. But this, too, has important political implications. If the government is really interested in raising gross national happiness, it has to make sure as many citizens as possible feel secure in their health, their housing and their incomes. Different states’ records in achieving this is one important reason why Nordic countries repeatedly score highly in international life satisfaction surveys and North America underperforms relative to its GDP.

Whichever way you look at it, there is no escaping the conclusion that increasing wellbeing across society requires joined-up, long-term policy efforts. This is exactly what the Resolution Foundation recommends. Contrary to the headlines, the study does not show that the secret of happiness is to be 16 or 70. It is that wellbeing flourishes when people have freedom and security. A correct reading of the wellbeing data puts the ball very much in the government’s court.


 

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