1880 was Britain’s happiest year, says study

Fun-loving: Victorians were not always as austere and severe as we imagine.

Is the research right? Test cricket was a fresh, young sport; Queen Victoria was approaching 50 years on the throne and, apparently, we were the happiest we have ever been.

1880 was a busy year in Britain.

England and Australia played the first Test cricket match on British soil; the Liberal Party ended Benjamin Disraeli’s second term as Prime Minister; the first frozen lamb was imported from New Zealand, and four students at the University of London became the first British women to receive degrees.

The country was enjoying a period of stability and imperial expansion under Queen Victoria, who would celebrate her Golden Jubilee in 1887.

It was, researchers claim, the happiest we have ever been.

The study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, was carried out by a huge team from Warwick and Glasgow universities and the Alan Turing Institute.

They read millions of books and newspapers — from 1820 to the present day — to judge the mood of the nation during each year. The team used an index of 14,000 words, which were scored on a scale of one to nine according to how “happy” they were.

The results were surprising: historians usually think of the late Victorian period as a time of poverty, social unrest and anxiety as Britain’s supreme Empire came under threat from international competitors.

While happiness dropped during both world wars, the study found that 1978 ⁠— with its Winter of Discontent ⁠— was Britain’s lowest point. That year, the country was rocked by mass strikes, a sinking economy and one of the coldest winters on record.

However, the link between economic prosperity and happiness is not clean-cut: in 2019, we are richer than the Victorians but not happier.

The study follows a recent international push to use happiness ⁠— rather than just GDP and economic factors ⁠— to measure of a nation’s success, but most countries only have data from the past 10 years.

Can we trust the team’s methods? Even those who worked on it recognise the study’s flaws.

“The people that were writing then would have probably been rich and educated, and life might have been like a basket of cherries for those people,” says Professor Thomas Hill of Warwick University. “It’s the age of Empire for Britain, it’s very proud of itself and that might be reflected in the writing as well.”

Was 1880 really Britain’s happiest year?

The good old days?

Yes, say some. Literature and newspapers reflect the spirit of the era: a time of stability, progress, hope and national pride. It stands in clear contrast with our hi-tech, 21st century, where we are wracked with anxiety and walled off from each other. We need to find our way back to a simpler form of happiness, which reached its peak in 1880.

That’s naive, argues academic Hannah Rose Woods. The newspapers and books were created by middle and upper-class men for an audience that only reflected themselves. For the working majority ⁠— many of whom could not even read ⁠— it was a time of “urban overcrowding, child employment, workhouses, infant mortality, cholera or typhoid”. That’s without considering the suffering of British “subjects” abroad living under the Empire.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to have lived in 1880?
  2. In 2019, are we happier than ever?

Activities

  1. Write down what you believe to be the five main factors that impact a nation’s happiness.
  2. Write the one-page diary entry of a person living in 1880s’ Britain. Think about their position in society and how it might affect their experience.

Some People Say...

“I want to lead the Victorian life, surrounded by exquisite clutter.”

Freddie Mercury (1946-1991), lead vocalist of rock band, Queen

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The study looked at the happiness of other nations beside the UK too. In the USA, the national mood plunged during the carnage of the Civil War, while peaking in the roaring twenties. Across Europe, the levels of happiness in Italy and Germany fell after a series of revolutions in 1848.
What do we not know?
How much trust we can put in this research. Hannah Rose Woods accuses the study’s authors of failing in a historian’s first duty: to root out bias. Published newspapers and books only show a limited section of a society in which education and literacy were not as widespread as they are today.

Word Watch

Benjamin Disraeli
A British politician who played a central role in creating the modern Conservative Party. He served two terms as Prime Minister, for 10 months in 1868 and then for a longer term between 1874 and 1880.
Imported
When goods are brought into one country from abroad to be sold.
Degrees
The University of London was also the first to admit female students in 1869.
Imperial
Britain’s vast Empire, which included India and much of Africa, would start to decline soon as Britain started losing control of South Africa after the First Boer War.
Been
These were also trying times: the country was locked into the second Anglo-Afghan war, and the First Boer War would break out in December after the Boers of the Transvaal (in South Africa) declared independence.
Economy
The way that money flows through a country, which affects wages and the cost of living.
Happiness
The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan consistently comes out on top
GDP
Gross Domestic Product, which measures a country’s economic output over a set period, often a year.

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