When Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told Britons “You’ve never had it so good” in 1957, he may have had a point – academics who have put together a happiness index of the last 240 years found that the 1950s marked a modern high point in the happiness of the nation.

To create the happiness index, economists and psychologists at the University of Warwick analysed around eight million books, assessing changes in vocabulary in works published from one year to the next in the UK, US, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Billions of these words were then scored on a ‘happiness’ metric and the average score for each country was calculated for every year since 1776.

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The scores for recent years tie in with the findings of modern surveys measuring national wellbeing, the researchers said, but going further back, they also seem to mirror significant historical events.

In Britain happiness sees a rebound after the Second World War, peaking in the early 1950s before sliding gradually through the 1960s.

The low continues, coinciding with the Winter of Discontent from 1978 to 1979 before gradually improving during the 1990s and into the early 2000s, though our happiness has not yet returned to the peak of the 1950s.

However the 1950s represents only a relatively recent peak: the study suggests that Britons were happier for much of the 19th century and even during the years between the First and Second World Wars.

The paper, co-authored by psychologist Prof Thomas Hills and economist Dr Daniel Sgroi and Eugenio Proto, concluded that good health may be the secret to happiness.

Happiness graph

Dr Daniel Sgroi told MailOnline: “We're trying to build a historical measure of happiness which doesn't exist at the moment and it's our first attempt to do that.

“Frankly, money doesn't seem to push happiness very much. What we’ve found is that health seems to be the most powerful long-run indicator of happiness.

“So if governments care about the happiness of their population, it makes sense for them to think about the physical wellbeing of their population.

“I think money is historically very important for the UK, but in the modern age at least health is more important.”

Photo credit: University of Warwick