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December 14, 2011

Democracy makes you happy

A lot is said and written about happiness. Some argue that its pursuit is the main purpose of life. But what is it that determines how happy we are.  Can it be measured? David Cameron has designs on a happiness index for the country while the New Economics Foundation has devised the Happy Planet Index as a measurement of collective wellbeing. Professor Bruno Frey at Zurich University, has undertaken some serious research into the happiness question.  He has established a direct correlation with an unlikely factor – democracy


What magic ingredient accounts for a high level of happiness in Switzerland and a high degree of anger among protesters outside St Paul’s? James Bartholomew of the Spectator Magazine thinks he knows what it is. It’s democracy. He points to the work of Bruno Frey of Zurich University, one of a growing band of ‘happiness professors’ and himself a ‘smiley, cheerful’ fellow, has done solid academic research on the issue – it clearly shows that the more direct democracy you have, the better you feel. Having surveyed 6,000 people across Switzerland’s 26 cantons, adjusting for such factors as age (old people tend to be happier than young ones) and income, he found that the more democracy a canton had, the happier were its citizens. Thus Basle Land, with the highest democracy rating of 5.69 out of 6, was far happier than Geneva, with a measly 1.75 rating. Quite simply, your sense of well-being increases if you can influence events. This has major implications. One: that parliamentary democracy isn’t enough; for the people shivering in tents outside St Paul’s, a vote every five years is no consolation. Two: that the European Union, like any other form of disempowerment, makes you unhappy.