Scandinavian happiness: never mind the cold, feel the equality

9 Jun

Over the last year there’s been a jostling for Finland winter 2position among the front-runners in the international happiness stakes. According to the 2018 World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations, the first four places are still occupied by Scandinavian countries. But Finland has edged into the lead, pushing Norway – last year’s winner – into second place. The third slot goes to Denmark, while Iceland is fourth. Elsewhere, the US has slipped to number 18, while the position of the UK remains unchanged at 19, behind Australia (10) and Germany (15), but ahead of France (23), Italy (47), and Greece (79).

The bottom of the table is still dominated by Asian and African countries. They occupy all but four of the last 50 places, out of a total of 156, joined only by Albania, Ukraine, Georgia and Haiti. Syria, unsurprisingly, comes in at no.150, while India is at 133. China, at 79, and Pakistan, at 80, seem to be doing much better than their democratic neighbour.

Overall, these figures suggest that there may be something very first world about the values being tested in happiness surveys; or alternatively – and more straightforwardly – that a certain level of material comfort is vital for happiness.  The latter conclusion seems plausible. The key variables being examined in the report, compiled by the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, are income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity. The first three, at least, are probably not compatible with high levels of poverty.

But there again, money isn’t everything. Gross Domestic Product per capita in Finland is lower than in other Scandinavian countries, and much lower than that of the US. And Finland has only recently emerged from a 10-year economic depression, linked to the collapse of its signature company Nokia and made worse by the 2008 financial crisis.

Things have picked up recently, thanks to the success of other tech companies such as the games studio Supercell. And Nokia has by no means disappeared: it’s still Finland’s largest employer, followed by escalator manufacturer Kone. The economy is in reasonable shape, then; but it hasn’t recovered from the 2008 debacle as quickly as the UK and US economies (see The Observer 18 March, Business Leader). So why are the Finns apparently much happier than the Brits and Americans?

It’s the equality, most commentators would argue. Finland has a state education system that caters for all its children without the need for selective or private schooling. The health service and welfare programme remain for the time being universal. And taxes are seen in Finland as an investment in quality of life, not as a crime against humanity.

The picture isn’t completely rosy, however. As in other countries, the economic depression in Finland saw a rise in support for far-right views. The party which dubs itself True Finns has recently elected an anti-immigrant hardliner as its leader. And the country has one of the most rapidly ageing populations in Europe, which has prompted the conservatives who control the coalition government to embark on a series of healthcare cuts. In the future some Finns may feel the need to resort to private medicine.  And this may mean that Finland doesn’t retain its position at the top of the happiness table.

But at the moment Finland doesn’t just have the happiest population in the world, it also has the happiest immigrants. For the first time the UN report examined the happiness levels of immigrants in each country, and Finland got the top score here as well. In fact, the ten happiest countries in the overall rankings also occupied ten of the top eleven spots in the ranking of immigrant happiness. Which suggests that happiness isn’t bound up with our genetic and cultural inheritance, but rather with the quality of life we enjoy in the country where we’re living.

Or maybe it’s the cold. Some pundits have suggested that Scandinavians always do well in happiness surveys because their climate has made them more resilient and more neighbourly. To combat harsh conditions they’re forced to come together and help each other. This spirit of co-operation feeds into the national psyche and so into state policies.

I’m inclined to think that such climatic determinism is nonsense. Sunshine rather than snow is usually credited with being the fount of all happiness, and speaking for myself I know that my mood lightens instantaneously when the sun comes out. But it’s clearly not crucial. Italy, which for a lot of British people is the very image of a carefree sun-kissed nation, always comes low down among European countries in the happiness tables. Many of the Italians I talk to personally moan a lot about their lives and their prospects. Not so the Finns, Danes and Norwegians. It could be the cold that makes them upbeat, I suppose – but it seems much more likely that equality is the really important factor when it comes to Scandinavian happiness.

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Sartre: unencumbered by stuff

10 Jan

SARTRE

Three months ago I’d never even heard the expression ‘the experience economy’.  Now it seems that every other journalist is talking about it. Of course, there’s nothing like Christmas for persuading people to angst about Stuff, how much we desire it, and what a waste of money, space and resources it is. Shouldn’t we be opting for experiences instead?

The week before last , the whole of the Radio 4 programme ‘You and Yours’ was devoted to the question of whether, in the west, we’ve reached a state of Peak Stuff. Some people phoned in to say that they were addicted to buying things. Others told us in detail how little new stuff they needed.

One lovely woman informed us that the only non-food item that she doesn’t buy from charity shops is her underwear.  Another made the sensible point that the problem is in part a generational one. As you get beyond middle age you may well find that you’ve got most of the stuff you want, and in any case you can’t find room for any more. The young are generally in a less fortunate position.

A psychologist on the programme reflected on the trend towards experiences rather than things.  On Facebook, he said, a photo of you and your friends having fun will nowadays get far more ‘likes’ than a picture of your new shoes.

I’m still not convinced that telling the rest of the world about your fabulous experiences is any more charming or worthwhile than bragging about your new acquisitions (see this blog, 11 November 2017). But I’m interested to discover that the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre preferred to spend whatever money he had on the experience aspect of human life (as I might have expected from an existentialist, come to think of it).

Sartre’s aim was to pass through life unencumbered. He gave away books after he’d read them; the only objects he tried to hang on to were his pipe and his pen.  Most of the money he earned was redistributed to others. If he did keep any for himself, he preferred not to spend it on stuff,  ‘but on an evening out: going to some dancehall, spending big, going everywhere by taxi, etc etc – and in short, nothing must remain in place of the money but a memory, sometimes less than a memory.’  He was, apparently, a legendary tipper (War Diaries, p.244, 251).

I learned this from the excellent book, At the Existentialist Café, by Sarah Bakewell (p.119-20). The inclination described is of course very much in line with the existentialist aspiration towards freedom – from possessions as well as from preconceived ideas.

A self-help tip from GBS …

9 Jan

GBS

‘The way to have a happy life is to be too busy doing what you like all the time, having no time left to you to consider whether you are happy or not.’ This practical piece of advice from Bernard Shaw echoes much of the guidance which is nowadays offered by self-help gurus. He passed it on to us in a BBC film made at his home in Ayot St.Lawrence in 1946 , to celebrate his 90th birthday.  

Some of Shaw’s plays make it clear that he was mistrustful of the whole idea of  pursuing happiness (see this blog, 14 May 2015), and what he says here certainly makes a lot of sense. I’m not sure that it would work all that well if you were too depressed to keep busy. But it does occur to me from time to time that writing a blog about happiness is a good prescription for not worrying about it all that much. Ironically enough.

I discovered the quote, incidentally, in an excellent programme about Shaw presented by the actor Gabriel Byrne on BBC4 last night. 

 

 

The experience economy – is it making us happy?

11 Nov

eating and shopping

Peak stuff is in the news again (see this blog, 31 March 2016). Market research and retail organisations tell us that the UK’s ‘experience economy’ is on the rise, with people spending more on meals in restaurants, days out and holidays, and less on tangible possessions. Retailers are in trouble, apparently. BHS, for example, has gone dramatically bust, and – more surprisingly – Apple recently reported its first revenue decline in 13 years.  At the same time spending on recreation and culture has gone up by 8%.

The reasons for this trend were discussed on Radio 4’s ‘World at One’ last Tuesday by presenter Martha Kearney and an academic specialising in consumerism. Rising inflation, the academic argued, means that these days people want to save their hard-won cash for essentials like food, rather than spending it on superfluous consumer durables. But what about the ‘experiences’ we’re opting for nowadays? Kearney asked. Don‘t they cost money too? Maybe it’s a question of compensation, the academic suggested. Pressures at work and school mean that families are spending less time in each other’s company, so when they do get a chance to be together they want to do something  a bit more interesting than slog round shopping centres. They’re compensating themselves for not seeing more of each other.

This discussion put me in mind of Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between the experiencing self, who lives in the present, and the remembering self, who maintains the on-going story of our lives (this blog, 9 Oct and 11 Dec 2013). Maybe these days we’re investing more in moment-by-moment experiences, as Kahneman suggests we ought to be doing if we want to be happy.  We’re focussing more on living and less on remembering . 

But there again, maybe we’re not. We still want to tell stories about our experiences, both to ourselves and to each other. In other words, we still want to furnish our remembering selves with material. One thing Kearney and the academic agreed on was that experiences provide just as many opportunities for showing off as stuff does. Rather than displaying our new scatter cushions to our friends we’re deluging them with photos of our meals out and our holidays in Provence. Social media provide us with so many arenas in which to compete with each other on the experience front. And this, we’re beginning to learn, can actually make other people miserable. ‘Why aren’t I as happy as my friends A and B?’ is one of the most common reactions to postings on Facebook, we’re told. This, indeed, was probably one of Facebook’s original underlying purposes. ‘Get booking that holiday now!’ it screams at us. And it seems that we do, in ever increasing numbers.

 

 

 

 

More and more satisfied … unless you’re in Wolverhampton

4 Oct

 

uk happinessThe UK’s Office for National Statistics has just published the well-being figures for  April 2016/March 2017, based on responses to the ‘life-satisfaction’ and ‘happy or anxious?’ questions I’ve been discussing in recent blogs. Life satisfaction, we’re told, is at its highest level since 2011, when the questions were first included in the Integrated Household Survey. It’s gone up to 7.7 out of 10, compared with 7.6 in the previous year.

So during a period when the UK began grappling with the fallout from the 2016 Brexit vote, people apparently felt more rather than less satisfied with their lives. They were also a little bit happier. Scores under this heading had levelled off between 2015 and 2016 – having risen steadily in earlier years – but now they’re up from 7.48 to 7.51. We’re apparently just as anxious as we were in the previous year, however  – the average rating here was 2.9 out of 10. And  we’re no more inclined to view what we do in our lives as worthwhile: here the score remains static at 7.9.      UKMap

Many of us feel that we’ve being going through a good deal of political uncertainty recently. But the ONS points out that in spite of this, employment rates rose during the period covered by the report, and in other surveys respondents have reported an improvement in their financial situations. This could be the reason for the increased sense of life satisfaction.

As usual the media are fascinated by the regional variations in these survey results. Of all the countries making up the UK, Northern Ireland, as in previous years, recorded the best average ratings across all four measures. And when you get down to local authority districts, Craven in the Yorkshire Dales emerged as the happiest area in Britain, and also had the highest levels of life satisfaction and the lowest anxiety levels. Wolverhampton, sadly, remained the least satisfied of all our districts.

Kant: virtue before happiness

30 Sep

Being in touch with our feelings may be important if we want to know whether we’re happy or not. But when it comes to distinguishing right from wrong, we have to rely on reason rather than feelings. This, at least, is what the  eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued.

According to Kant, happiness cannot form a basis for morality. Experience tells us that doing the right thing doesn’t always produce happiness – quite the contrary in some cases. Conversely, pursuing happiness may fly in  the face of virtue: the principle of happiness tells ‘viImmanuel_Kantrtue to her face that it is not her beauty but only our advantage that attaches us to her’ (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy  91). If we base our values on personal happiness, then we are only virtuous when we think we have something to gain from it. A shopkeeper, for example, may be honest because he thinks a reputation for honesty will be good for his business. If he believed he could get away with it, the same consideration – his own advantage – would tell him to be dishonest and screw as much money as he could out of his customers. So morality and happiness are very uneasy bedfellows.

There’s another reason why the pursuit of happiness is so unsatisfactory when it comes to moral values. Although almost everyone feels that he or she wants to be happy, very few people know how to attain this state. For example, a person who imagines that knowledge is the thing that will make her happy may discover so many horrible things in the course of her studies that  on the contrary she becomes deeply miserable. Or take the example of wealth –  this is  notorious for its inability to make people happy. So how can something as unstable as the quest for happiness provide a sure foundation for morality?

Happiness for Kant means getting what we want (Cambridge Edition 240), and this is the reason why it is such a difficult project. We don’t really know what we want. In order to find this out we would need to be omniscient – but sadly we aren’t. ‘The problem of determining surely and universally which action would promote the happiness of a rational being is completely insoluble’ (Cambridge Edition 71).

So at a time when British utilitarian philosophers like Bentham were advocating ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, Kant  was maintaining that this was a hopeless goal.  Even benevolence – giving other people what they want  – doesn’t work. Let’s imagine we’re dealing with a drunkard. We give him lots of wine – but that isn’t a good thing to do. Clearly, then, securing either for ourselves or for others what we or they want cannot be the basis for an unchanging and universal morality.

Kant has to admit that human beings do, naturally, seek happiness. And in certain circumstances achieving it is not inconsistent with leading a moral life. We must all the time try to do our duty, accepting that this will often prevent us from being happy. But sometimes happiness and duty will coincide. ‘When a thoughtful human being has overcome incentives to vice and is aware of having done his often bitter duty, he finds himself in a state that could well be called happiness, a state of contentment and peace of soul in which virtue is its own reward’ (Cambridge Edition  510-11). This doesn’t inevitably happen. If we think that virtue is the surest route to happiness,  there’s a good chance that we will be disappointed. But if virtue and happiness do coincide, this is the best thing that can possibly happen to us. ‘Virtue and happiness together constitute the position of the highest good in the person’ (Cambridge Edition 229).

None of this means that Kant saw God as the fount of moral law. We cannot possibly know whether God exists or not – such knowledge is too hard for us. To find virtue we must look, not to a higher authority, but to an inner authority –  to our own rationality. Reason is something that we share with all other human beings, and it is the sole source for our knowledge of what is right.

Are we addicted to pleasure?

11 Sep

no-sugar-lustig

It looks very much like it, at least in Britain and the US. According to Robert Lustig, in an article which appeared in yesterday’s Observer, addiction is very much on the increase.  Heroin use in particular has sky-rocketed: although the UK has only 8% of Europe’s population, a third of all European overdoses happen in this country.  Overall death rates are also rising, for the first time in over 20 years. At the same time the incidence of depression has more than doubled. In the UK prescriptions for anti-depressants have gone up by 108% in the last ten years.

Lustig, an American endocrinologist and anti-sugar campaigner, thinks that these phenomena are linked. The things unhappy people do in order to feel better – smoke, drink, take drugs and eat sweet stuff – are killing them. 

 “What’s the connection?” asks Lustig. “Elementary, my dear Watson. Too much dopamine and not enough serotonin, the neurotransmitters of the brain’s “pleasure” and “happiness” pathways, respectively. Despite what the telly and social media say, pleasure and happiness are not the same thing. Dopamine is the “reward” neurotransmitter that tells our brains: “This feels good, I want more.” Yet too much dopamine leads to addiction. Serotonin is the “contentment” neurotransmitter that tells our brains: “This feels good. I have enough. I don’t want or need any more … Chronic dopamine from your favourite ‘fix’ reduces serotonin and happiness.”

In our society sugar, tobacco, alcohol, pornography and even drugs are all tolerated. The use of social media – which in itself is addictive, and can lead to cyberbullying – is positively encouraged. Combine this with constant stress, the product of the pressure both to spend and to achieve, and the result is an “unprecedented epidemic of addiction, anxiety, depression and chronic disease.” It’s a vicious cycle. “The more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get and the more likelihood you will slide into addiction or depression.”

I can only assume that Lustig is right about the science of pleasure versus ‘happiness’. And it’s interesting that his conclusions mirror more speculative ideas about the limits of hedonism and of desire-satisfaction.  It’s a grim picture he’s painting, although we can perhaps comfort ourselves with the thought that withdrawing from the ceaseless round of pleasure-seeking may well make us feel a bit better.  

But that may be quite difficult. “Our ability to perceive happiness has been sabotaged by our modern incessant quest for pleasure, which our consumer culture has made all too easy to satisfy. Those who abdicate happiness for pleasure will end up with neither. Go ahead, pick your drug or device. Pick your poison. Your brain can’t tell the difference. But please be advised – it will kill you sooner or later, one way or another.”