Having a happy recession? It appears that most of us are

By Simon Beard
October 15, 2009

Every six months the European Union releases the results of a large-scale survey called the Eurobarometer, which attempts to capture public opinion across the continent. In many surveys the question is asked ‘how satisfied are you with your life’, and respondents are allowed to choose between ‘very satisfied’, ‘fairly satisfied’, not very satisfied’ and ‘not at all satisfied’. This question has been asked to samples of more than 1,000 people in the UK 60 times since 1973 and constitutes one of the most important measures of well-being available to social scientists.

Over this time levels of life satisfaction in the UK have, on averaged, risen very by a small, but significant, level. In the good times they rise quite a lot, but every time there is a recession or economic slowdown they fall back.

Recently the Summer 2009 eurobaromter report was released.

It showed that, since the same time last year life satisfaction had increased. Admittedly the rise was by only a single percentage point, but it nevertheless appears to buck a long and well-established trend. Furthermore the increase was not just limited to the UK, but was seen across many European countries.

The same results are coming out of a monthly monitor of life satisfaction being carried out by the British Election Study (http://bes2009-10.org/papers/satisfaction.pdf). People did become significantly less satisfied with life following the collapse of Northern Rock, however this lasted for only 2 months, and since then life satisfaction has remained at around the same level it has been since 2004.

So what is happening? Well, it is hard to be sure given that we are dealing with only one data point, but it appears to confirm a trend many have reported about the most recent recession. Despite being the worst in living memory people are responding in a way nobody had expected. So far industrial action has been kept low and workers have decided to work with management in trying to keep their businesses afloat. Furthermore people have not given up on paying more for the things that matter most, and many ethical and locally based companies have performed very well, despite the overall market trend. Finally many people who have found themselves out of a job have opted to go into education until things begin looking up, rather than competing for jobs that are thin on the ground.

Trends like these need more investigation to be sure. However these could be the very green shoots of social and communal resilience that people have been looking for, popping up at the most unexpected of times.

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