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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Are you flourishing?

Happiness is over-rated according to Martin Seligman, the grandfather of positive psychology. This might be a bit of a shock as his book “Authentic Happiness” was influential in persuading influential people that the government should start measuring happiness and well-being.

In his latest book “Flourish” he says he got it wrong promoting happiness as it was only concerned with life satisfaction and how cheerful you were. He thinks well-being is more meaningful as it is more measurable.

As it happens researchers at the Well-being Institute at Cambridge University have defined and measured flourishing across the EU. They found that Denmark leads Europe with 33% of its citizens flourishing, nearly twice as many as in the UK.

Denmark was previously recognised as having the most people satisfied with life in a 2006 Wikipedia survey (in which we came 41st out of 89 countries!)


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Teachers – must do better!

pointing_at_chalkboard_text_10562Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, is proposing that trainee teachers will only be allowed to take their numeracy and literacy test three times.

At present there is no limit on the number of times the tests can be taken.

In my view the misguided philosophy of endless retakes undermines the whole point of exams and goes some way to explain why exam grades appear to improve year on year, plus team course assessments which are open to all kinds of fiddling.

Looking at the examples of test questions reported in the press, many of them multiple choice, anyone with a modicum of intelligence should pass with flying colours the first time. Rather than wait until the trainees start their courses wouldn’t it be better if they took the tests as a selection filter so if they failed they didn’t waste their time and our money on resits which they might fail? That would save everyone’s time and protect our children from bad teachers.

Gove also proposes that teachers should all have at least a 2:2 degree. Whilst this is more contentious most averagely intelligent graduates obtain this class of degree and if they can’t they don’t deserve to become a teacher. This is a vast improvement on former Ofsted chief  Zenna Atkins who (in)famously said “every school should have a useless teacher….”

Something needs to be done when 20-25% of children leave primary school unable to read or write properly and the last Chief Inspector of Schools admitted that only 4% of schools offered “outstanding teaching”.

And he wants to make it easier to sack bad teachers. There are an estimated 15,000 of these of which less than a dozen have been dismissed since 2008. He probably needs to toughen up some head teachers before that happens as in the past they have had a habit of giving references to poor teachers to move them on or otherwise rewarding poor performance (see “Don’t reward failure”).

One of Gove’s earlier ideas was to follow the US example and recruit and pay ex-soldiers to train as teachers to help improve discipline in schools. Ex-army graduates would receive 6 weeks training and non-graduates would be paid a £9,000 a year bursary to complete a two-year degree. Of course the unions don’t like it but it worked in American where research shows that ex-soldiers were better at dealing with classroom disruptions than regular teachers and also got better exam results.

And there was a great article in The Times magazine this week on Charlie Taylor who runs Willows School; which deals with London’s naughtiest children and which has been rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted. He is also the newly appointed “behaviour czar”. The article describes how he uses a range of positive psychology and behavioural techniques. He also believes that if discipline is carried out consistently the core group of trouble makers can be reduced to a manageable size. He wrote a book called “Divas and door slammers” in which he describes how he won one group over by being civil with them.

He also believes that the ratio of positive to negative feedback needs to be 6:1 (something I have long advocated in performance appraisal schemes). He also believes that teachers get better results from constructive praise. Things might be looking up for the future of our children’s education.


Where would you have a better life?

If you want to know which country to live in to enjoy life more go to the OECD better life index.

They  have identified 11 key factors such as health, education, earnings, and sense of community.

You can decide how important these are to you. After I’d scored my choices and pushed the buttons it turned out Australia would be my ideal place to live, followed by the Nordic countries, with Turkey at the bottom of my list. The UK came 13th!

Australia is also top of the official OECD list followed by Canada and Sweden with the USA 7th and the UK not in the top 10 so my preferences seem to be shared by many people across the developed world.

Three quarters of Australians say they are satisfied with their lives and over 80% still expect to be satisfied in 5 years time with 85% reporting that they are in good health. They also trust their politicians (doesn’t mention bankers in the survey), 71% of women with school age children are working and relatively few people work extremely long hours. And the gap between low performing and high performing children is extremely small.

In other surveys Finland and Denmark have featured as the best countries to live in for various reasons and France the most miserable.

Denmark has also come out top of countries in the OECD for the best work-life balance (WLB).


South Africa’s World Cup anniversary

Last June I posted about the outcomes that might be expected for South Africa or any country that hosted a large international competition like the World Cup or the Olympics.

The evidence from economists was that people would be happier – but only for about a year after the event and psychiatrists were concerned that there would be a post-event depression.

Immediately after the World Cup in South Africa it was thought that the government would break even on its investment in airports, motorways, and high speed rail links but not as many visitors arrived as were expected and budgeted for. Nevertheless the improved infrastructure will probably have long-term benefits, as long as it is well-maintained.

It was generally agreed that there had been a show of unity, pride and patriotism at the time and the crime rates improved – a decrease in murders and robberies – despite South Africa’s reputation as one of the world’s capitals in murder and rape.

Now a year later questions are being asked. According to the Times there is a big debate in South Africa about what the benefits really were and who actually benefitted. There is a belief that there has been a transformation in the way the country is perceived and although only 2/3 of the visitors expected actually arrived they had a positive experience. That has resulted in an increase in tourists from the USA of nearly 20%.

South Africa has said it is not going to bid for the 2020 Olympic games but wants to: “focus on the delivery of basic services to all South Africans”. And that’s the crux of the argument for a country with a 25% unemployment rate and with half its population living below the poverty line. Recent demonstrations about lack of clean water, toilets and electricity (so-called “service delivery protests”) were met with deadly force when an unarmed protestor was shot dead (the police responsible are now awaiting trial as it was caught on camera).

One writer described the World Cup as “the greatest hoax played on the African continent since the World Bank promised development” and another critic condemned the £9 billion spent as a crime against poor South Africans. £1 billion of that was spent on the new stadia that FIFA insisted on rather than improving existing grounds. Attendance at football matches has reportedly increased by 8% but the ticket prices have been doubled to help pay the World Cup bills.

So has anyone come out of it better off? Well FIFA made a tax-free profit of almost $700 million.


Those you have read – top 10 in 2010

When you first sit down to write a blog you hope people are going to want to read it – unless you plan it as a private journal where you can unburden yourself or have a rant at the world (OK so occasionally I have a rant too).

So it’s great for me that so many people have read my blog posts and some of them have even posted comments  – usually in a friendly way although occasionally mischievously.

So which posts had most readers in 2010? In reverse order:

10th most read: Living Together Apart (LTA) on the increase

This was a follow-on from my first ever posting and obviously reflected current trends among couples of all ages

9th most read: Daydream believer

This was an early post which originated in contributions I made to the Daily Mirror and Eve magazine. Perhaps we are all romantics at heart and want to believe in the power of dreams but it was also expanded into a guest business blog for my friends at Smoking Gun PR

8th most read: I’m stressed – gaze into my eyes

Well we all prefer a pretty face don’t we but it turns out that swearing also helps us withstand pain better!

7th most read: What sex is your job?

And still on pretty faces it seems you can sometimes be too attractive for your own good.

6th most read: Shoot yourself in the foot – join Facebook

As an avowed non-Facebook person it was pleasing to see that people did want to understand the down-sides of entrusting your personal life to it.

5th most read: Pigeons smarter than people??

Surprisingly popular perhaps but maybe it explains why some people still feed these flying vermin, especially outside high street bakers’ shops.

4th most read: What makes you happy?

And on a more positive note .. don’t we all want to be happy?

3rd most read: So many “friends” yet still lonely

My first post about the perils of Facebook – and yes I admit it was a bit of a rant!

2nd most read: 101 reasons why you can’t live together

The very first thing I ever posted and it obviously struck a chord (and thanks to everyone who contributed both willingly and unknowingly!)

But by an overwhelming number of views – 3 times the second most read – the clear favourite and most read post:

Blushing – do men find it attractive?

This was another early post and originated with a contribution I made to an article in the Daily Express but has continued to appear in my top posts section.

So thank you everyone and all the very best for 2011 when I will do my best to bring you more interesting posts.


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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.