In 1957 Prime Minister Harold MacMillan uttered the now famous remark ‘that most of our people have never had it so good’. Now it seems that the statement contains rather more truth than might be realised. For a study published in the last part of January suggests that 1957 was indeed the happiest year of the last century.
Academics at the University of Warwick used pioneering linguistic computing to read millions of books published since the 18th century to identify the frequency of words associated with positive emotions such as “enjoyment” and “happiness” and negative ones like “stress” and “unhappy”. The findings suggest that the national mood was never more buoyant than in 1957.
Clearly such buoyancy was not a consequence of the standard of living which we expect today, for sixty years ago things were very different. Only one in five households then had a washing machine, one in 20 possessed a refrigerator, central heating barely existed and freezing outdoor toilets were commonplace.
But the war was over, rationing had ended and people were counting their blessings’, the report said.
Furthermore, British society was less divided economically than it is today. This matters because a growing awareness of inequality tends to make people less content with their own lot. If you count other people’s assets and see they have more than you, it makes it harder to count your own blessings.
To count one’s blessings should be straightforward but in practice it requires a particular kind of discipline; for to count something as a blessing, it first has to be seen as such. This isn’t particularly easy when we live in a world in which the language of ‘rights’ has a proper and high place. There are constitutional, legal and moral rights that do belong to us simply on account of being citizens of a country and we are right to understand them as such. The rights, as designated by the United Nations, extend to having a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, having an education, enjoying freedom of movement and the right to rest and leisure.
Although such things are indeed our rights, that doesn’t mean we can’t also count them as blessings because they are all things we can give thanks for. This requires a particular and pleasing discipline – the discipline to recognize something as a gift and not turn it into a possession.
One way to achieve this is to acquire the habit of being grateful, so why not try to find ten things to be thankful for each day and see how we get on. My suspicion is that numbers 8-10 may be quite elusive, but that they certainly exist.
Sixty years on and we may find that the buoyancy of 1957 could also be ours.