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.

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

They read millions of books and newspapers — from 1820 to the present day — to judge the mood of the nation during each year.

The results were surprising: historians usually think of the late Victorian period as a time of poverty, social unrest, and worry about Britain’s place in the world.

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.

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 go back to a simpler form of happiness.

That’s naive, argues academic Hannah Rose Woods. The newspapers and books were created by middle and upper-class men for an audience that reflected themselves. But for women and the poor, it was a time of “urban overcrowding, child employment, workhouses, infant mortality, cholera or typhoid”. This is only part of the story.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to have lived in 1880?


  1. Write down what you believe to be the five main factors that impact a nation’s happiness.

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 also looked at the happiness levels of other nations beside the UK. In the USA, the national mood plunged during the carnage of the Civil War, while it peaked during the roaring twenties.
What do we not know?
How much we can trust this research. Published newspapers and books only show a limited section of a society in which education was not as widespread as it is today.

Word Watch

The longest cricket games, played over several days.
Benjamin Disraeli
He served two terms as prime minister, for 10 months in 1868 and then a longer term between 1874 and 1880.
When goods are brought into one country from abroad to be sold.
The University of London was also the first to admit female students in 1869.
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.
The way that money flows through a country, which affects wages and the cost of living.

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