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Lessons from the past on how to be happy

03 May 2017

A study from the 1930s into what made people happy may have lessons for policymakers today.

A study from the 1930s into what made people happy may have lessons for policymakers today.

That is the conclusion of research being presented today, Wednesday 3 May 2017, to the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society in Brighton by Sandie McHugh from the University of Bolton.

In 1938 the Bolton Evening News ran a competition for two guineas for the best letter on “What does happiness mean for you and yours?” The resulting 226 handwritten letters were transcribed by Sandie McHugh and her fellow researchers Julie Prescott, Jerome Carson and Charlotte Mackey to give an insight.

When they analysed the accounts they found the top three themes to emerge as being connected with happiness were contentment/peace of mind, family and home and other people.

  • “Contentment” and “peace of mind” meant having “enough” rather than seeking wealth.
  • “Family and home” was seen as happy marriages, healthy children and a place for repose. 
  • “Other people” meant giving to and helping others less fortunate than themselves.    

Sandie McHugh says:

“These shared values helped the community get by before the NHS and the welfare state. Their pleasure time, what we would call leisure, was in the town and in the Lancashire seaside resorts, principally Blackpool. Leisure was often centred in their workplace or the local pub. The people of Bolton were agents and actors in their own leisure activities.

In today’s age of information our lives and leisure are more individualistic and some commentators have suggested that companionship from social media is an illusion and of a more solitary nature. People could ask themselves whether too much of their leisure time is spent on the internet rather than with other people, and is of a passive, rather than an active nature. They should ask what they would most enjoy.

Scientific research shows that enjoyment is important for happiness and wellbeing, keeping active is good for health and helping other people can be beneficial to the giver.”

The researchers suggest that the lessons from 1938 should be learned by present-day initiatives to enhance wellbeing in towns like Bolton.

Among the policies they favour are:

  • Wider use of public facilities such as libraries, leisure centres and schools.
  • Expansion of the voluntary sector and higher levels of participation by people as volunteers.
  • More facilities for active leisure.

Sandie McHugh concluded:

“We welcome the move of the Office for National Statistics to measure people’s wellbeing and not just look at economic measures. This helps raise awareness and can be a prompt to action.  As the 2017 World Happiness Report suggests, happiness can be considered as a measure of social progress and a goal of public policy.“ 

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