Mike the Psych's Blog

What if psychologists ruled the world? In real life?


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Football & happiness – a game of 2 halves 

 brazil_flag_with_soccer_ball_1600_wht_2747Now the 2014 World Cup is underway again there will be much speculation about the impact it will have on the host country.

After the last one there was quite a bit of research which showed that such events did have positive outcomes.

We’ll have to wait and see if the same thing happens this time round in Brazil.

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Fans celebrating the upcoming 2010 FIFA World ...

Image via Wikipedia

Football can make people happier. Two economists tried but failed to prove that football was good for a country’s economy. But when they looked at national pride and happiness they got better results.

They looked for changes in life satisfaction in 12 European countries over 30 years up to 2004, and especially looked at how people felt following Olympic, World Cup, and European Cup competitions.

They were interested in whether or not teams doing better than expected had a positive effect on people from that country and whether countries hosting the competitions benefitted.

There was no evidence that performing better than expected had any real effect on people’s life satisfaction scores. Nor did planning to host such an event make people any happier.

But there was strong evidence that actually hosting an event did make people happier in that country. In fact it made people 3 times happier than if they had gained a higher level education, 1.5 times the happiness boost associated with getting married, and nearly large enough a difference in happiness to offset the misery of a divorce!

Sadly 1 year later the happiness effect had worn off. Whereas being married keeps you happier longer.

So perhaps the secret is to live in a country hosting such an event to get the short-term happiness boost and get married in the following 12 months for a longer-lasting effect!

FYI Married people are happier than single people (of course it could be that happy people get married more easily). And the 30% improvement in spousal happiness even counteracts all the negative affects of unemployment.

Greater Manchester Police reported an increase in domestic abuse the day England were knocked out of the World Cup. It was the largest number reported since New Year’s Eve and 16% up on the same time the previous year.

Updated 10 July 2010: The World Cup seems to have had a unifying effect on the rainbow nation, perhaps even more than the 1995 Rugby World Cup. And if the government figures are correct South Africa will break even on its investment in airports, motorways, and high speed rail links.

There has been a show of unity, pride and patriotism and the crime rates have been low despite South Africa’s reputation as one of the world’s capitals in murder and rape.

So maybe the economists have got it right. Apparently psychiatrists are concerned that South Africans will experience a post event depression when the World Cup finishes. Let’s hope it’s 1-0 to the economists.

And a 40 year research project in America reported in New Scientist (10 July 2010) shows that when local college football teams did well in the 2 weeks before an election the sitting party won more votes than when the team lost. So if you want to stay in power make sure your local team plays well!

Updated 20 September 2010: Despite concern that South African policemen are too fat to chase criminals – the police minister said they shouldn’t be “massaging beer bellies” – it seems that the get-fit boot camps put in place for the World Cup may have paid off. (This in a country, similar to USA and Germany, where 60% of the population are overweight or obese).

Despite SA having the highest murder rates in the world, outside war zones or countries with drug cartels like Mexico and Columbia, the World Cup showed what could be done. There has been a sharp decrease in murders (down almost 9%) and violent robberies for the first time since nation-wide records were first collected in 1995-6 (when there were 27,000 murders compared to 17,000 this year).

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Dave – I’d be happy with £50k!

Bhutan_Gross_National_HappinessDavid  Cameron says a government’s actions could make people “feel better as well as worse” and it was “high time” to recognise that GDP was an “incomplete way” of measuring the country’s progress.

He confirmed that the government was asking the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to devise ways of measuring wellbeing in addition to tracking economic growth so that he could introduce a wellbeing index from next year. France is also considering something similar.

According to the Number 10 website, the ONS will lead a debate called the National Wellbeing Project which will seek to establish the key areas that matter most to people’s wellbeing. Potential indicators include health, levels of education, inequalities in income and the environment.

Finland was recently chosen as the best country in the world to live in using similar indicators. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has considered using social indicators like average years of schooling, gender wage gaps, participation in voluntary groups, and suicide rates.

Wellbeing, like happiness or satisfaction, is an elusive concept and something economists, among others, have discussed for years. The Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan was the first country to introduce the idea of a Gross National Happiness Index in 2006 (although the KIng had coined the term back in the 1970s).

So it’s not all about money but having some helps. An American economist in the 1970s discovered that people in industrialised countries were getting richer – but they weren’t getting any happier, despite what the American Declaration of Independence might have said. And who said we have a right to be happy anyway?

For those of us who don’t live in “Rooney-world” or bankers-ville, the lowest earners are the ones that struggled with life and our happiness increases until we reach an income of $75,000 or £50,000 a year (about twice the average income in the UK) when it levels off. Once we earn more than that the extra hours we have to work and the difficulty of maintaing a good work-life balance stop us being happier.

The researchers at Princeton said: “More money doesn’t necessarily buy more happiness but less money is associated with emotional pain”. High earners however were more satisfied with life as a whole and the more they earned the more they were pleased with themselves.

However other research shows that when it comes to salary it’s about where you are in the pecking order. For some people it doesn’t matter how much you earn if someone is earning more than you. In experiments such people will accept a lower salary providing they are the top earner.

And yet other research at the University of Illinois shows that while money can make you happy it doesn’t necessarily make you satisfied. Professor Ed Diener said; “Positive feelings are less affected by money and more by what you do day to day”

As I said at the beginning this is an elusive concept to measure. And it may be down to personality which is partly inherited. Keirsey Research confirmed the $75,000 threshold but using their personality questionnaire found the biggest factor in happiness was the person’s personality type. 74% of extraverts are happy compared to 56% of introverts.

Updated 25 February 2011:

Latest statistics from the ONS suggest sleep and bicycles may be involved in being happy!

Updated 2 March 2011: According to a major social research project, Understanding Society, commissioned by the Economic & Social Research Council, Britain’s happiest couples are married, less than 5 years into their relationship,and childless.

The survey will follow the lives of 40,000 households, interviewing 100,000 people over 20 years. It has been described as a “living laboratory of British life”.

According to this survey happiness declines the longer a couple are together and the older they are (these things tend to go together of course) and married couples are happier than co-habiting couples, particularly for better-educated people. And children are happier if their parents are happy.

So happiness = relationship of less than 5 years + both educated to degree level + no children + man is in employment.



Do we get the customer service we deserve?

Over the years I have experienced some poor customer service – and not all of it in the former soviet republics (“service without a smile”). Some of the best has been in the USA – and not the “have a good day” or “missing you already” stuff, but the fact that even in a basic chain restaurant they will smile, wipe your table, and give you a jug of water, without having to be asked. Scandinavia is pretty good too.

But here in the UK it’s a mixed bag. Some coffee shops are good, in others the staff just talk to each other and ignore the customer. It’s the same in supermarkets with bored checkout staff who talk to their colleagues next to or behind them and who don’t even attempt eye contact once they’ve asked you if you need help packing your bag.

Yet research shows that waiters who touch you when giving you change get bigger tips; smiling will get a positive response 50% of the time depending on whether you are an extravert or an introvert; and remembering your name and your preferences is a good way to create loyalty.

So should it all be one-way? I went to collect a parcel from a depot recently and the first thing I saw was an A4 sized notice saying; “Customers conducting conversations on their mobile phones may find staff are unable to serve them until both parties have each other’s full attention”. Good for you I thought.

Apparently a regular customer would get out of her car and get on her mobile phone before coming to the reception desk and then carry on a running commentary with someone in the office – not just about what she was doing but what the other customers were doing as well!

We’ve all seen, or rather heard, mobile phone conversations carried on in public places with no regard for their intrusion into other people’s space. I have in the past asked people on trams to speak more quietly. It didn’t go down well but I didn’t really want to know what he had been doing with his girl-friend the previous night or what pizza toppings it led to!

People seem to be getting more egotistical or narcissistic, tweeting, texting, sexting and generally talking about themselves. And yes you could argue that bloggers like me are similar but you’re not forced to read this.

Updated 12 January 2010: Bad customer service is unforgivable says Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jr. He thinks people are surly, and slapdash and it’s dreadful. “It’s not just in restaurants, you get bad service anywhere,” he says. “Even buying a newspaper you can find that you’re not even acknowledged. There’s no eye contact, no greeting or anything. Bad service is unforgivable and it’s everywhere in the UK.

He has a point. The UK came a disappointing 14th in the 2010 international customer service rankings from the Nation Brand Index and was ranked 13th for its “welcome” by visitors. Top is Canada, followed by Italy and Australia.

It doesn’t bode well for a country just months away from a royal wedding that’s expected to attract millions of visitors to the UK, followed by the Olympics next year. Even for Britons, poor customer service is a national bugbear, up there with the weather. See: “Why is service still so bad in the UK”




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What makes you happy – part 2

Despite what England fans might feel right now football competitions can make you happy as I said in an earlier post – but only in the short-term – and only if you are the host country.

But even that doesn’t make you as happy as a good marriage. Married people are happier than single people (it could be that happy people get married more easily). And the 30% improvement in happiness due to being married makes up for  all the negative affects of unemployment.

Just don’t get divorced (the two worst life events are losing a spouse and unemployment).

How do you know if people are really happy? Women look less happy but angrier than they are, whereas men look less angry and happier than they are. Probably because we expect women to be happier than men and men angrier than women and we notice when people display behaviour that doesn’t fit our expectations.

Optimism is associated with happiness, good physical and mental health and longevity whereas stress lowers our immune system so we are more likely to become ill. So middle-aged people who are happy have fewer physical symptoms of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Older people also focus more on the positive aspects of goods and services because they focus more on emotional goals than young adults.(See “What makes you Happy).

We are attracted to happy people because we think theye will give good genes to our children. Extraverts are happier than Introverts because they spend more time doing enjoyable things. But introverts who are asked to behave as extroverts can be even happier than real extroverts.

Happiness IS NOT associated with: wealth (once basic needs are met), education, high IQ, youth (20-24 year olds are more depressed than 65-74 year olds) or watching TV more than 3 hours a day – especially watching soaps.

But it IS associated with: religion (although it may be the community rather than the belief), having lots of friends, and drinking in moderation (compared to teetotallers).

We are not evolved to be happy all the time otherwise we would have nothing to strive for. However 50% of happiness may be due to our genes compared to les than 10% due to our circumstances. We may have a “set point” or range of happiness to which we return after experiencing ups and downs. So like the football example, winning the lottery may not make us happy forever.

According to ideas from positive psychology we can raise our happiness levels by enjoying life more eg by savouring sensual experiences, by becoming more involved in things, and by finding ways of making our lives more meaningful.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of “The How of Happiness: a practical guide to getting the life you want“, suggests the following  to raise your levels of happiness:

  • Count your blessings – keep a gratitude journal each week of 3-5 things
  • Practise being kind – both randomly and systematically
  • Savour life’s joys
  • Thank a mentor
  • Learn to forgive
  • Invest time and energy in friends and family – these are more important than work to your happiness.
  • Take care of your body and health
  • Develop strategies for coping with stress and hardship – having a strong belief system helps.