Vote for happiness

More democracy, new research indicates, really does make you feel better

26 November 2011

1:00 PM

26 November 2011

1:00 PM

What 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. The main thing is the fact of having a little power — even if it is not used, it makes you feel better.

The implications are big. First, parliamentary democracy leaves us less happy than we could be. It certainly beats dictatorship but we could be happier still if we had regular referenda. Incidentally, Professor Frey found that local autonomy made people a bit happier, too. So we could add that into the mix.

Professor Frey says that when people in Switzerland vote, they typically have about six propositions on the ballot paper: two that are nationwide issues, two relating to their canton and two relating to their commune (communes vary in size between 1,000 and 400,000 people). He thinks that this is a sensible number of things to vote on and that California allows too many issues on to the ballot paper for people to have the time really to consider them.

Seeing things this way, it is easy to imagine that the protestors outside St Paul’s are angry partly because they sense that they do not really have a chance to express a view through democratic means. Getting cold in a tent is a rather miserable alternative.


It is worryingly Marxist to say this, but our parliamentary democracy can easily be seen as a plot through which members of the elite (such as Tony Blair and Ed Miliband) impose their will on the populace. Not so much a democracy as an oligarchy. This elite has done things that it knows the people at large do not want. It has abolished the death penalty and, in its time, has encouraged immigration. These policies may have been right and good but whether they have been or not, the elite knows very well it is flouting what the majority wants. The population, not being entirely gormless, realises what is going on too and is literally less happy because of it.

Even more profound is the anti-happiness effect of the European Union. A majority of the laws passed in Britain are on the say-so of the EU, yet there is no sense here that British individuals have any significant role in framing them. There is a double whammy of unhappiness here: no regular referenda and reduced local autonomy. It is no good saying that we have a democratic say through our elected government and MEPs. It is too indirect. Happiness increases with direct democracy. The fact that there has been no referendum on membership of the EU itself since 1975 is also a cause of unhappiness. Many people would be disappointed whatever the result of a new referendum might be. But more than half of the population would get what it wanted and the remainder would have the satisfaction of knowing that at least they had had their say. They were not powerless. For surely one of the threads going through the various studies of happiness is that disempowerment makes you unhappy. Surely that is one of the reasons that the unemployed are so miserable. They are given benefits according to rules and feel like subjects, not citizens.

Looking at democracy through the lens of happiness also illuminates the revolts that have taken place in Libya, Syria and Egypt. People seek democracy not only because it is an abstract ideal and they feel oppressed by a particular dictatorship. They may sense, too, the unhappiness of being disempowered and foresee that being part of an electorate would give them greater well-being.

People have been arguing about the best form of government since the Greeks. Now there is a new element in the dispute. Whatever its faults, democracy makes you happier. And there is plenty of scope to make us happier by giving us more of it.

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