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What makes us happy — then and now

What makes us happy today appears to be markedly different from what made us happy 78 years ago, a British study finds.

The aspect of happiness with the highest ranking in the 1938 study was economic security. In 2014, it was ranked second.
Vladimir Pustovit

Interest in the study of happiness — or positive psychology — has exploded in recent years, and not just among academics. 

Enter “books on happiness” into any search engine and you’ll find dozens of how-to guides on the topic.

But the exploration of happiness is not a recent phenomenon, as an intriguing article by British psychologists Jerome Carson and Sandie McHugh in a recent issue of The Psychologist makes clear.

In 1938, a team of inquisitive researchers set out to determine what life was like for everyday people in a British town, including what made them happy.

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Seven decades later, in 2014, Carson and McHugh returned to that town and asked the town’s residents similar questions.

A comparative analysis of the answers was quite revealing. What makes us happy today appears to be markedly different than what made us happy 78 years ago.

At least one concern remains the same, however. Economic security — having the ability to meet basic living expenses — ranked high on both happiness lists.

Two surveys, seven decades apart

The original data was collected when researchers (an anthropologist, a poet and a filmmaker) asked the residents of Bolton, an industrial town in northern England, to respond in a letter to this ad placed in a local newspaper: “You are asked to write simply what you personally think is HAPPINESS for you and yours. Don’t bother about style or grammar, just write it down.”

The 226 Bolton residents who responded were then sent a follow-up questionnaire, which asked them detailed questions about when they were happy and why.

They were also asked to rank the following 10 aspects of potential happiness in order of importance: more equality; beauty; leadership and authority; pleasure; security; politics; religion; humor; knowledge; and action.

The data was not formally analyzed at the time — in fact, researchers didn’t do that until 2013.

When Carson and McHugh read that analysis, they decided to replicate the survey. They believed doing so offered a unique opportunity to compare perceptions of happiness collected 76 years apart.

So, in 2014, the researchers placed an ad similar to the 1938 one in the same Bolton paper. Some of the language in the second questionnaire was updated, including substituting “leisure” for “pleasure.”

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This time, 489 of the town’s residents answered the questionnaire, either through hard-copy questionnaires available in downtown Bolton or through a web link on the newspaper’s website.

Comparing the results

Here are some of the key findings uncovered by Carson and McHugh when they compared the data from the two surveys: 

  • The aspect of happiness with the highest ranking in 1938 was economic security. In 2014, it was ranked second.

“The top place for security [in 1938] is not surprising when we consider that there was no welfare state in 1938,” write Carson and McHugh. “… Most of the writers did not desire riches and wealth, but they were concerned about having enough.”

Yet, although economic security is the only aspect of happiness that made the “top three” on both the 1938 and 2014 lists, its meaning had altered by the time of the second survey. 

“The comments from the questionnaires in 2014 indicate that having ‘enough’ may often be more about being able to afford experiences, such as holidays and leisure pursuits, rather than just enough to eat,” Carson and McHugh explain.

  • Knowledge and religion followed economic security on the 1938 respondents’ list. In 2014, humor topped the list (up from fourth in 1938) and leisure (up from eighth) was in third place, behind security.

The high placement of knowledge in 1938 may be due, say Carson and McHugh “to the desire for learning and understanding. The vast majority left school at 14, and with no internet or TV, knowledge was not as readily available as today.”

“The importance of religion [in 1938] reflects the 200 churches and chapels in the town for a population of around 177,000,” they add. Seven decades later, church attendance had declined dramatically in Bolton, as it has throughout Great Britain. The town currently has 81 places of worship — a fact that may explain why respondents in 2014 ranked religion 10th on the questionnaire, say Carson and McHugh.

  • In 1938, 75 percent of the respondents found it easier to be happier in Bolton than at a nearby seaside resort popular at the time, most likely because, as one of the respondents put it, “Bolton is where home is.” In 2014, only 39 percent of the respondents preferred being in Bolton than elsewhere, “perhaps reflecting the importance of holidays,” write Carson and McHugh.
  • In 1938, only 26 percent said it was easier for them to be happy on the weekends than on weekdays, despite the fact, as Carson and McHugh point out, that many of them “worked long hours, often a six day week and sometimes in the dirty and dangerous conditions of heavy engineering and mining.” In 2014, 39 percent of the respondents found happiness easier to achieve on weekends. Today, most heavy industry jobs in Bolton have been replaced with ones in the service industry, high-tech, electronics and data processing.
  • People’s perception of luck in happiness remained unchanged, with about 40 percent of the respondents in both 1938 and 2014 saying it played a role.

Interestingly, 77 percent of the 2014 respondents said happiness was not directly related to wealth. “The essence of happiness as reflected in the comments was rooted in family, friends, pets, and leisure activities,” write Carson and McHugh.

Here, for example, is the response from one 47-year-old employed woman: “Happiness is simple things like going out for a walk with the dog. You don’t need tons of material things to be happy.”

Unfortunately, the researchers do not provide in their article the precise proportion of respondents who felt similarly in 1938.

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  • Also interesting was the finding that less than 1 in 25 of the 1938 respondents linked happiness to world events, despite Hitler’s occupation that year of Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia and General Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War. (Carson and McHugh do not tell us the percentage of respondents in 2014 who linked happiness to world events.)

Changing concepts

Of course, these findings only reflect what two small groups of residents in one British town said made them happy. If the surveys had been taken 75 years apart in any other city, town or village in the world — or even in different years in that same town — the answers undoubtedly would have been different.

Still, as Carson and McHugh note, comparing the results of the 1938 and 2014 questionnaires offers at least some insight into “how concepts of happiness have changed across the last century, and no doubt will continue to do so.”

FMI: You can read Carson and McHugh’s article on The Psychologist’s website.