Despite everything, we’re no unhappier than we were a year ago | Tim Adams


Among the stranger pieces of psychological research is the idea of thermostatic contentment or, to give it its fancier title, “hedonic adaptation”. The original work was led in the 1970s by the US professor Philip Brickman and published under the title Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?

The study examined the effects of extreme life-changing events on perceived contentment. Against all intuitive expectation, it discovered that after a short period of adjustment the reported “happiness” of those who had enjoyed a major windfall hardly changed, while those who had suffered an accident still rated themselves above averagely happy. The researchers concluded that happiness adjusted in relation to expectation and that there was a strong genetic element in feelings of contentment.

I was reminded of that study when looking at the ONS data on national wellbeing between March 2020 and April this year. The data was part of an initiative established by David Cameron a decade ago to find metrics other than economic ones to plot national growth. Each quarter, respondents are asked four questions: “how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?”; “to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?”; “how happy did you feel yesterday?”; and “how anxious did you feel yesterday?”.

In the year of lockdown and Covid, there were no great swings in the data, only very minor dips on the year before. Perhaps even more surprisingly, in the 10 years since the questions were first asked – before austerity and cuts, before Brexit, before the pandemic – the dial of reported national contentment is fractionally more upbeat on all counts.

Swiss timing

Roger Federer after winning the French Open in 2009.
Roger Federer after winning the French Open in 2009. Photograph: Bernat Armangué/AP

In 2009, I interviewed Roger Federer for a magazine profile near his family home in Basel, Switzerland. He suggested we meet for lunch at his local sports centre and my abiding memory is of perhaps the greatest athlete of our time strolling into the cafe, with his sports bag on his shoulder, as if he was just any other gym member after a workout. At 28, he had just achieved a long-held ambition to win the French Open and complete his “career grand slam”. The feeling was that there might be no more worlds left for him to conquer.

I asked him how he thought he could continue to motivate himself and he said that his new goal was to play long enough for his twin daughters, whose birth was due in a few weeks, to watch him play. A dozen years later, Federer continues to advance, astonishingly, at Roland Garros with all his former grace and power intact as he approaches his 40th birthday this summer. His daughters are nearly teenagers. It no doubt gives him extra satisfaction to hear them ask: “Do we have to go and watch Dad be a genius again?”

Don’t mention the war

John Cleese and Andrew Sachs in Fawlty Towers.
John Cleese and Andrew Sachs in Fawlty Towers. Photograph: PA

It is to be hoped that Carbis Bay hotel, near St Ives in Cornwall, Boris Johnson’s venue for this week’s G7 summit, provides a suitable backdrop for world leaders to agree how to “build back better”. If comments from some of last week’s guests on TripAdvisor are anything to go by, however, a little fine-tuning might still be needed for the full English seaside experience: “Told room had been refurbished but stained carpets, wallpaper ripped and dirty. Telephone not working. Pool and spa closed,” one said. Another complained of “Bank Holiday Hell… food OK, cocktails like water”, while a third reported: “Reception staff are rude and clearly need intense training… all that was missing was Basil Fawlty.”

Tim Adams is an Observer columnist



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