Magazine article The Spectator

Vote for Happiness Really Does Make You Feel Better

Magazine article The Spectator

Vote for Happiness Really Does Make You Feel Better

Article excerpt

hat makes you happy? If you did not think anybody cared, you could not be more wrong. Your happiness has become a major issue. It is being investigated by professors with regression analyses. It is being fussed over by politicians who want to show their human side.

The British government has decided to measure your happiness. Over in Paris, the OECD has recently come out with a major report on well-being. There is a growing band of academics studying your happiness, including Professors Layard and Oswald in Britain and Professors Gui and Becchetti in Italy.

One of this growing band of happiness professors is Bruno Frey of the University of Zurich. He is appropriately smiley and cheerful and has come upon an aspect of happiness which surely has considerable political meaning. He has produced serious, academic evidence that democracy makes you happy. Or at least, other things being equal, democracy makes you happier than you otherwise would be.

He conducted an experiment. He took a survey which had already been done, in which people were asked about how happy they were. More than 6,000 people across Switzerland were asked to rate their happiness from one to ten. He then analysed the extent of direct democracy and autonomy in the 26 cantons of Switzerland in which they lived. Each canton has its own constitution and way of operating. In some of them, access to direct democracy - in the form of a referendum - is easier than in others.

What he discovered was a clear correlation between the amount of democracy in the cantons and the happiness reported.

So, for example, the canton of Basel Land, which is near but does not include the city of Basel, had the highest democracy rating of 5.69 out of six. It was notably happier than the canton of Geneva, which has the lowest democracy rating of only 1.75.

All the results were adjusted for demographic variables such as how old the people are in different cantons (old people are happier than the young, believe it or not).

They were also adjusted for income levels (a higher income makes you mildly happier).

After all such adjustments and following a barrage of statistical tests beyond a layman's grasp, the results were found to be robust.

Democracy really does make you happier.

But by how much?

It increases the share of people indicating a very high level of satisfaction with life by 2.8 per cent. OK, that is not as large an effect as being unemployed, which is the biggest long-term destroyer of happiness measured so far. The democracy effect though was found to be as powerful as moving up from an income level below 24,000 Swiss francs a year (£16,800) to the next level up out of five. And the thing that makes the effect so important is that it applies to everybody. The study showed that the happiness effect of democracy reaches people of all social and educational classes. Men get slightly more out of it than women, but not to a statistically significant extent.

Why does democracy make you happier?

There are two possible reasons. One is that you get a better government, or one more in accordance with your views. The second and, it turns out, more significant reason is that you gain a sense of well-being from the fact that you have the capacity to influence events. This applies even if you do not use the capacity. Professor Frey found that people benefit from increased democracy even when they do not vote. In fact, as he remarks, people may not always vote but they do so in big numbers when the issue is particularly important or is one on which they have strong views. …

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