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Mental health and relationships 'key to happiness'

12 December 2016

Mental health and relationships 'key to happiness'

Good mental health and having a partner make people happier than doubling their income, a new study has found.

The research by the London School of Economics looked at responses from 200,000 people on how different factors impacted their wellbeing.

Suffering from depression or anxiety hit individuals hardest, whilst being in a relationship saw the biggest increase in their happiness.

The study's co-author said the findings demanded "a new role from the state".

The study was based on several international surveys from around the world.

On a scale of one to 10, the doubling of someone's pay saw their happiness rise by less than 0.2. The researchers said this was down to people caring more about how their incomes compared to other people's than how it affected them.

However, having a partner saw happiness rise by 0.6 - losing a partner by separation or death saw the same impact downwards.

The biggest effect was caused by depression and anxiety, which saw happiness levels dip by 0.7 on the scale. Unemployment also saw the same reduction in points.

Report co-author Prof Richard Layard said the findings meant that the state needed to play a new role in its citizens' happiness - focusing on "wellbeing creation" rather than "wealth creation".

He added: "The evidence shows that the things that matter most for our happiness and for our misery are our social relationships and our mental and physical health.

"In the past, the state has successively taken on poverty, unemployment, education and physical health. But equally important now are domestic violence, alcoholism, depression and anxiety conditions, alienated youth, exam-mania and much else. These should become centre stage."

Tweet when you vomit: It's your duty

If you're suffering with projectile vomiting and watery diarrhoea, reach for your phone and post an update.

No really - while it won't ease your suffering, a tweet or two could help researchers track the spread of the winter vomiting bug.

The UK Food Standards Agency has been using social media to track levels of norovirus, a highly contagious illness which spreads via food and through person-to-person contact. The symptoms usually last for one to two days, with the person remaining infectious for a further two days.

If you've ever had, it you know what it means: vomiting, diarrhoea, pain, and the general feeling of having been run over by a car.

In 2013, the Foods Standards Agency started looking at new ways to track the virus. They analysed Google searches but found that social media was a better source of data. "It's more about the immediacy… what's happening in their lives right now," says Dr Sian Thomas.

On the other hand, "if you're in hospital or a nursing home and you're sick, then they might take a sample and send it to a laboratory for analysis," she says.

The FSA compared this official sample data with the volume of relevant tweets and concluded that "there's a really good correlation between the number of mentions on Twitter of 'sick' and a range of search terms, with the incidents of illness as defined by laboratory reports."

"Our current estimate is that between 70-80% of the time, we are able to accurately predict an increase the next week."The model searches for Tweets containing words and phrases relating to norovirus symptoms. "There's a whole range of things", says Dr Thomas. "It's mostly about the impact that being sick has on other things that are going on around them."

Researchers exclude tweets which include references to pregnancy, anxiety, and alcohol. According to Dr Thomas, the task of filtering "gets more tricky towards Christmas."

By tracking the volume of symptom-related tweets, the Food Standards Agency can try to intervene before a national outbreak.

"In order to have the biggest impact, it's better to roll out that intervention when the numbers of cases of norovirus are going up… when we've got three consecutive weeks of a predicted increase," says Dr Thomas.

If the team predict a national outbreak, they plan to run a digital campaign explaining how to look after yourself.

"The intervention is really quite basic," she notes. "It's about washing your hands, it's about looking after yourself, and not coming in to contact with other people while you're sick."

Norovirus can be dangerous for children or the elderly. Fortunately for healthy adults though, the illness is usually a minor, if messy, inconvenience.

Brain tests predict children's futures

Low cognitive test scores for skills like language indicate less developed brains, possibly caused by too little stimulation in early life, they say.

These youngsters are more likely to become criminals, dependent on welfare or chronically ill unless they are given support later on, they add.

Their study in New Zealand appears in the journal, Nature Human Behaviour.

The US researchers from Duke University say the findings highlight the importance of early life experiences and interventions to support vulnerable youngsters.

Although the study followed people in New Zealand, the investigators believe that the results could apply to other countries.

They followed the lives of more than 1,000 children. Those who had low test scores for language, behavioural, movement and cognitive skills at three years old went on to account for more than 80% of crimes, required 78% of prescriptions and received 66% of social welfare payments in adulthood.

It is known that disadvantaged people use a greater share of services. While many of the children in the study who were behind in brain development came from disadvantaged backgrounds, poverty was not the only link with poor futures.

When the researchers took out children below the poverty line in a separate analysis they found that a similar proportion of middle class children who scored low in tests when they were three also went on to experience difficulties when they were older.

The researchers stress that children's outcomes are not set at the age of three. The course of their lives could potentially be changed if they receive support later in life, for example through rehabilitation programmes when they are adults.

Prof Terrie Moffitt, from Duke University in North Carolina in the US, who co-led the study, told BBC News: "The earlier children receive support the better.

"That is because if a child is sent off on the wrong foot at three and not ready for school they fall further and further behind in a snowball effect that makes them unprepared for adult life".

Prof Moffitt said nearly all the children who had low scores in cognitive assessments early on in life went on to fall through "society's cracks".

"We are able to predict who these high cost service users will be from very early in life.

"Our research suggests that these were people who, as very young children, never got the chance that the rest of us got. They did not have the help they needed to build the skills they need to keep up in this very complicated and fast-paced economy".

She said society should rethink their view of these people who are often condemned as "losers" and "dropouts" and instead offer more support.

Prof Moffitt conducted the study with her husband, Prof Avshalom Caspi, from King's College London. He said he hoped that the study would persuade governments to invest in those in most need early on in life.

"I hope what our study does is not feed into prejudice," he told BBC News. "I hope that our research will create the public compassion and political will to intervene with children and more importantly offer services to families of children so they can get a better start in life".

Successive governments have invested in expanding nursery education in the UK over the past 20 years. According to Josh Hillman, who is the director of education for the Nuffield Foundation, policy makers already realise the value of early years education.

"But this new research suggests that they may have underestimated its importance," he said.

"The issue now in the UK is to provide more high quality nursery provision and to consider targeting it to those disadvantaged groups that would benefit the most."

Participants were members of the Dunedin longitudinal study, an investigation of the health and behaviour of a representative group of the population of 1,037 people born between April 1972 and March 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand.

As adults these people account for only 20% of the population - but they use 80% of public services in an analysis of a group of people in New Zealand whose lives were tracked for 40 years.



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