Covid blues

5 Sep

The data released last October by the UK’s Office for National Statistics told us how happy we were in the first full Covid year, April 2020 to March 2021. Not very, obviously.

The annual declines under all headings were the greatest since measuring began, in 2011. Overall life satisfaction declined by 0.27 points (out of 10), ‘things done in life worthwhile ‘ by 0.15 points, and ‘happy yesterday’ by 0.17 points.

Anxiety across the UK increased on average by 0.26 points. All countries and regions saw a sharp rise in anxiety apart from Northern Ireland and the North East, the largest increases being in the West Midlands (0.44 point increase) and the North West (0.38 point). At the same time, Northern Ireland,  along with Yorkshire and The Humber, had the largest declines in life satisfaction (0.32 and 0.31). This suggests that, in Northern Ireland at least, it’s possible not to be especially anxious, but also to find life a bit of a drag.

Some people spent the pandemic baking bread, writing novels, or learning Serbo-Croat. I on the other hand spent most of it cowering in my room, googling symptoms. But it wasn’t nearly as difficult for me as it was for those who lost the loved ones memorialised in the Covid wall outside St.Thomas’s hospital, on the south bank of the Thames. Thank God the worst of it is over. Thank God for vaccines. Thank God for the NHS.

Happiness update, 21/22: shades of Epicurus

24 Jul

I’ve been away from this blog for several months, so there are a few things to catch up on – not least the ONS’s happiness statistics for 2020/21 (the COVID year), published last October.

But first, the Wellcome Collection, which in 2021 was celebrating “the complexity of happiness”. Below is part of a wall emblazoned with thoughts about happiness contributed by visitors to the Wellcome. Most of them are of the ‘happiness is a warm puppy’ variety. As Socrates might have said, “But you’re only giving me examples of happiness, not a definition”. Still, I enjoyed them. 

Wellcome 2

Highlights of its two exhibitions addressing two components of happiness – Tranquillity and Joy – can still be seen on the Wellcome’s website (, along with articles, interviews, and stories.  

Thomas Dixon, who lectures in the history of the emotions at Queen Mary University of London, tells us in an audio on the website ( that strong feelings like joy and sorrow, hope and despair, were for many centuries thought of as ‘passions of the soul’. They were seen as distinct from milder sentiments like family love or compassion. 

The word ‘emotion’ only took on its modern, psychological meaning in the 19th century. “Ever since then,” Dixon says, “scientists of the mind have tended to lump together all our feelings, sentiments, passions and affections in the capacious category of ‘the emotions’.” Earlier theories included categories that were seen as both rational and emotional. For instance ‘affections’ and ‘sentiments’ combined reason with passion, light with heat. But the new category of ‘the emotions’ was from the outset contrasted with intellectual states of mind. “In this way, the contrast between the head and the heart became even more firmly entrenched.”

Le Brun Tranquil Joy


In the exhibition, Dixon’s talk was illustrated by this image by Charles le Brun from his 1688 lecture on Passions. It was believed back then that each passion produced a different facial expression, and drawings like these were used to create a visual dictionary for artists.This one is titled ‘Tranquil Joy’.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus would have loved this idea: for him, the summit of happiness is reached in ‘ataraxia’, or tranquillity. Joy and serenity can co-exist. In fact they must, if we’re to achieve true happiness. 


alabaster bust Vexed Man


Of course, Le Brun’s drawings are by no means the only artworks used to present psychological portraits. The eighteenth century German/Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was famous for his ’character heads’, some of which seem to depict passing emotions rather than settled character; for example this alabaster bust of a ‘Vexed Man’.

And last year in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery I took great pleasure in this installation by Sophie Cave. Here, a great range of feelings and responses are on display. In real life, many of them are fleeting. Tranquil Joy is, hopefully, more long-lasting. Pain is an inevitable part of human existence; but we must endeavour to deal with it as quickly and cheaply as possible – or we must learn to live with it. So says Epicurus. 


Optimism, denial and hope

5 Sep

Hope‘It’s seeing and not seeing at the same time’. This was how the British psychotherapist Adam Phillips characterised the psychological response of denial, in a BBC radio 4 programme last week. Sometimes denial can be healthy, Phillips added. There are situations when it may be the best way we have of coming to an accommodation with a disturbing issue or event. And in order to deny something, we do at least have to acknowledge that it exists.

So the effects of denial depend very much on how far we take this form of self-deception.  

The radio programme in question was ‘Knowing and not knowing’, presented by Isabel Hardman as part of her series ‘The Age of Denial’ ( Hardman went on to talk to Tali Sharot, professor of neuroscience at University College London, and author of the book The optimism bias: why we’re wired to look on the bright side. According to Sharot, 80% of us are hard-wired with an optimism bias, while 10% have a pessimism bias,  and 10% have no bias at all. Being an optimist, she says, ‘doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a happy person, a smiley person’. It’s true that optimists do tend to be happier. But being optimistic isn’t about now, it’s about our expectations of the future. Sharot believes that what keeps optimists happy is anticipation: they are looking forward to positive outcomes.

Since expectations are generally better than the actual outcomes, Hardman chips in, why aren’t 80% of us disappointed most of the time? Sharot’s answer is that optimists tend to learn from what happens to them. For example, an optimist may believe that she is going to do very well in an exam she’s just taken. If the results turn out to be not as good as she expected, she’s already anticipating the next challenge, and she resolves to study harder.   So failure doesn’t reduce her sense of well being. She simply pins her hopes, once again, on future success.

Sharot thinks that our tendency towards optimism is a factor in human evolution. It reduces stress and anxiety, and enhances motivation. It also makes us willing to explore and to innovate.

This link to evolution was examined in more detail when Hardman talked to Ajit Varki, a professor of medicine at the University of San Diego in California. Varki sees our capacity for denial as an in-built response which helped to keep evolution going. There was a time when human beings became aware of their own mortality, Varki says, and this would have caused great anxiety. The individuals who first developed this awareness and, alongside it, a ‘facile ability to ignore reality’ were more likely to survive. Knowing that we were subject to death helped to protect us from danger, while simultaneously pretending that it would never happen to us saved us a great deal of distress. In other words, denial gave us the ability to carry on. It had huge evolutionary advantages.

Sharot’s ideas in particular made me think once again about the value of hope. If she’s right, then the fact that hope for the future often leads to disappointment isn’t detrimental to our personal happiness.  Hope may be absurd, as Albert Camus observed, but it could be the thing that protects our well being.

Let’s assume for now that I myself am one of the hard-wired pessimists. Actually I’m never sure about this, but it may well be my tendency towards pessimism that makes me come back, as usual, to the problem of complacency, and the global dangers of happiness. Sharot thinks that the optimism bias makes us underestimate the likelihood of negative events, such as cancer, a car crash, or getting divorced. ‘Oh I know nearly half my friends have gone through a marriage break-up,’ we say to ourselves as we walk down the aisle, ‘but that isn’t going to happen to me.’ 

On a personal level this response may be all to the good. But on the level of the wider community it might be extremely damaging.  extinction rebellionI’m writing this at the end of two weeks of protest in London and elsewhere orchestrated by Extinction Rebellion. What’s going through my mind at the moment is that optimism probably keeps most of us believing  that the planet isn’t going to be destroyed by climate change. ‘Oh it will probably never happen,’ we think. In fact, we’re just hoping that it isn’t going to happen. We’re in denial.

And we’re almost certainly wrong.

But thinking makes it so … Are we medicalising unhappiness?

4 Jun


Are we medicalising distress these days, as psychologist Dr Lucy Foulkes believes? In her book ‘Losing our minds: what mental illness really is and what it isn’t’, Foulkes argues that labelling a state of mind can be tantamount to pathologising it.   Tags can easily be internalised and become a badge of identity for the individual. ‘I’m a depressive.’ ‘I’m OCD.’ Our labels may come to define us, both to ourselves and to others.

Plain old grief is one of the examples cited by Foulkes. Most of us experience it at some point in our  lives. But it’s now set down as a mental illness. An emotion that arguably belongs to the better part of our human nature – our capacity to care for others and to miss them when they’re gone – is being  classed as an aberration, a problem ( ).

Foulkes’ arguments make absolute sense to me. Encouraging people to think of themselves as mental invalids can’t possibly be healthy.

But there again, what about acceptance? It’s an important tenet of cognitive behavioural therapy, for example, that we acknowledge our anxiety and learn to accept it. We can flounder around thinking, Oh God, everything scares me, I’m totally useless. Or we can admit to ourselves that we’re anxious, and think of a few reasons why that might be happening to us. Acceptance creates a platform for coming to terms with the condition. Here, a label – identifying and naming the emotion – may actually be beneficial.

Confirmation that a bit of self-reflection might not go amiss in the fight against mental illness is provided by a ‘science of happiness’ course being taught at the University of Bristol. An academic appraisal of this course, the first of its kind in the UK, revealed that the first-year students who had taken it had significantly higher mental well-being than those in a control group (The Guardian, ). The inference, that we can acquire happiness by studying it, is quite contrary to the advice offered by people like George Bernard Shaw, who believed that the key to a happy life is to be far too busy to even think about happiness (this blog, 9 January 2018).

Foulkes, I suspect, would say that all this is relative. ‘Everything we might think of as a “symptom” of mental disorder – worry, low mood, binge eating, delusions – actually exists on a continuum throughout the population. For each symptom, we vary in terms of how often we experience it, how severe it is, how easily we can control it, and how much distress it causes. In the terrain of mental health, there is no objective border to cross that delineates the territory of disorder.’

The boundaries are so blurry, she suggests,  that some psychologists argue that we shouldn’t use the terms “illness” or “disorder” at all, but instead view all these conditions as matters of degree. For some people of course seeking help for negative psychological experiences will be desperately important. ‘But the message misfires when it implies that all negative states are problems, health problems – and things that can and should be fixed. That’s not how life works.’

But there may well be points on the continuum where a label can be helpful. It’s a case of ‘nothing in excess’, as a wise Greek once wisely said. Or, as Foulkes writes,

‘Psychiatric labels provide meaning and legitimacy, but they can also be heavy and frightening, and can turn a fleeting problem into something bigger. Interpreting your low mood as a sign of depression, for example, can actually cause you to spiral into the very depression you’re worried about… Learning to view low mood as “just” that, rather than as a start of a new depressive episode, can help reduce risk of relapse.’

So we need to take unhappiness seriously, but we shouldn’t necessarily see it as a mental illness.

Not so happy now

29 Jan



Regent’s Park, London

So what went wrong?  The official UK happiness statistics for 2019/20 are showing the first significant drop in our levels of well-being since the surveys began in 2011. ‘In the year ending March 2020, average ratings of life satisfaction, happiness and anxiety all deteriorated,’ says the Office for National Statistics. ‘This is the first time since we started measuring them that these three measures have significantly worsened when compared with the year before.’

Average anxiety ratings went up by 6.3%, from 2.87 to 3.05 (out of 10). This is the largest annual increase since 2011; anxiety has now reached its highest-ever level. The ratings for happiness in the UK fell by 1.1% over the year. And life-satisfaction fell as well, although on the same trajectory as during the previous year. The average score under the fourth measure of well-being, our sense that the things done in life are worthwhile, remained unchanged. ‘There was no sharp pre-lockdown decline in life satisfaction, and feelings that the things done in life are worthwhile remained stable,’ concludes the ONS.

Even so, it’s not looking good, and the explanation isn’t completely obvious. ‘Pre-lockdown’ is a key term here. The survey only goes up to March 31st 2020, and at that point we were little more than a week into our first experience of ‘stay at home if you possibly can’. However, as the ONS reminds us, by the start of 2020 there were already ‘increasing concerns about the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and lockdown in the UK, with the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring a public health emergency of international concern by the end of January 2020.’ These issues may have contributed to the steep increase in anxiety and the reduction in happiness during the first quarter of 2020.

Anything else? ‘It’s Brexit, you moron,’ I hear some of you cry. ‘Not to mention our crappy government.’ Here we need to remind ourselves that in December 2019 Boris Johnson and his Brexiteers had won a resounding victory in the UK General Election. So quite a lot of people should have been extremely happy. Perhaps the ones who voted for other parties were so excessively pissed off that their plummeting spirits counteracted the joy of the Tory supporters. And let’s not forget that Johnson and his cronies won only 43.6% of the vote in the election (as is nearly always the case, the new government hadn’t acquired an overall majority among the voters). So there were quite a few folk around who would have been both devastated and pretty frightened about the future.

Moreover, the Tory triumph was followed almost immediately by the COVID crisis. There wasn’t a great deal of time for elation.  And in the period leading up to the General Election the outcome of the Brexit fracas had remained very uncertain. The UK population was – and remains – extremely divided over the issue. No wonder the quarterly figures show that our spirits were already flagging by the end of September 2019.

The ONS also suggests that part of the explanation may lie in financial difficulties.  During most of 2019/20 unemployment continued to fall. But people were probably beginning to worry about the future prospects for the economy: we’d had the dramatic collapse of businesses like Debenhams; and seemingly solid companies such as Boots and Marks and Spencer were already reporting falls in their profits.

Now, of course, the ONS is busy gathering in the figures for April 2020 to March 2021. Our current ‘happiness year’ ends in only two months’ time. Statistically speaking, at any rate, it seems certain that for the time being  things can only get worse.

For the 2019/20 figures, go to:


Don’t blame Aristotle for Boris Johnson

18 Nov


Boris Johnson 2

You don’t get to choose the people who admire you, and the Greek philosopher Aristotle has inevitably acquired some unfortunate followers. He wasn’t best pleased with the later activities of Alexander the Great, for example, one of his former students. But that’s nothing compared with the disgust you might feel if you were revered by the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Johnson’s perverse behaviour alone would have made him anathema to a thinker who saw rationality as the defining characteristic of the human race. But even worse, in my view, is Johnson’s invocation of Aristotle’s definition of happiness in support of some outlandish opinions on the work ethic and on health and safety regulations.

In a Spectator article of 23 May 2007 Johnson repeatedly attacked Gordon Brown, who was about to succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister, for his Puritanism and his ‘worship of work’. Clearly, back in 2007, Johnson saw exertion and self-restraint as obstacles to our achievement of happiness. And, infuriatingly, he cited Aristotle as an ally in this shallow notion:

Every skill and every pursuit and every practical effort or undertaking seems to aim at some good, says old Aristotle, my all-time hero, and that goal is happiness.

Gordon Brown, he insisted, should stop inventing new taxes and read Aristotle’s Ethics instead.

How appallingly ironic it is that a man like Johnson should lambast one of his predecessors for a hatred of frivolity and aversion to risk-taking. The scorn he pours on the Labour Government’s health and safety legislation is particularly abhorrent, not to say prophetic. Rules about smoking, snacking, smacking, observance of cycle lanes, booster seats in cars – stuff all that, Johnson proclaims. Measures like these stem from a laughable control-freakery and ‘Puritan bossiness’.  Earlier this year he probably felt the same way about an early lockdown and an effective test-and-trace system: just sad examples of the killjoy mentality which his brand of Toryism sets out to suppress.

Johnson is at least quoting Aristotle correctly, more or less. The philosopher does indeed say that every skill, pursuit, effort and so on seems to aim at the achievement of some good, and the great majority of people agree that this good is happiness. But he goes on to say that what actually constitutes happiness is a matter of dispute. And Boris Johnson’s definition is quite at odds with the one Aristotle himself puts forward. As the ex-Tory-Minister Rory Stewart writes in the course of a blistering onslaught on his former boss,

Johnson’s notion of happiness seems a much thinner thing than Aristotle’s life of honour and virtue. It is more akin to pleasure, and insufficient to provide a rich, flexible or satisfying purpose to his political life.

     Times Literary Supplement, November 2020

Equating the pleasure principle with the achievement of happiness is neither disreputable nor new. But the adherents of this philosophy  – people like Epicurus, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill – tended to be sophisticated thinkers. Boris Johnson isn’t one of those – he just prefers having fun to working hard or showing respect for rules. Or he did. Right now he may be having a hard time engaging with the ‘risk, pleasure and bunking off’ way of life he was once so keen to promote.

As for Aristotle, he’s a complete stranger to Johnson’s belief system. In his ethics the philosopher argues that our possession of a rational soul is what distinguishes us from other animals. This capacity to guide ourselves by the use of reason is the ‘telos’ or end to which our essential humanity commits us. All of us have reason to one degree or another; but we have to train ourselves to use it well. If we can manage that, then we are living well as human beings. And by fulfilling ourselves in this way we attain ‘eudaimonia’ or happiness. As far as Aristotle is concerned, this doesn’t mean lying back and basking in our own cleverness.  Rather, it involves doing something – pursuing those activities which satisfy our fundamental rationality. Vitally, this means pursuing virtuous activities, and maintaining those activities throughout our lives:

To be happy takes a complete lifetime; one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or brief period of happiness does not make a person supremely blessed and happy.

 Nicomachaean Ethics 1098a

And, he adds, most of us will find it harder to live rational and therefore virtuous lives if we don’t have friends, money or political power. The use of reason isn’t easy if circumstances are against us.

I’m writing this piece the week after the UK became the first European country to record over 50,000 deaths from coronavirus. Reflecting on happiness in this situation may seem beside the point. But if Aristotle is right – and I suspect that he is – then happiness is probably still the end which most of us are seeking but are finding it increasingly difficult to reach. If only our PM had been a true follower of his ‘all-time hero’ Aristotle, then he might have realised a long time ago that the freedom to break rules has little part to play in a rational commitment to our nation’s well-being.

It’s the hope I can’t stand

17 Aug



‘It’s not the despair, Laura. I can stand the despair. It’s the hope …’. Implicit in these words – spoken by a prostrate man who’s been frantically trying to fulfil one of his dreams – is the understanding that hope rather than despair will be the thing that drives him mad.

Most images of hope tend to be upbeat, not to say sentimental. But in the 1886 painting above, by the English painter George Frederic Watts (now in London’s Tate Britain gallery), the allegorical figure of Hope has a less than uplifting effect. She’s blindfold, all but one of the strings on her lyre is broken, and she seems to be weighed down by melancholy. Hope is surrounded by mist, and the globe on which she sits may well be sinking. But still she presses her ear to her instrument, perhaps in one last effort to hear a faint note of encouragement.

The quote I’ve used at the start of this piece comes from the film ‘Clockwise’, written by playwright and novelist Michael Frayn. It was released in 1986, a hundred years after Watts’s painting appeared, and to my mind its take on hope is even more ambiguous. John Cleese plays the part of Brian Stimpson, an accident-prone head teacher whose obsession with clock-watching is rooted in his own previous inability to arrive anywhere quite on time. Now he’s on his way to deliver a speech at the prestigious Headmasters’ Conference, where he will be the first head of a comprehensive school to chair the proceedings. But he boards the wrong train, forgets to pick up the briefcase containing his speech, commandeers a car driven by one of his sixth-form students, steals some petrol, is chased by both his wife and the police, gets stuck in a field full of cows … and so on and so forth. It’s funny, and heart-rending. As Stimpson collapses onto a roadside verge he tells us and the sixth-former just what he thinks about hope. Meanwhile Laura is trying to hitch a lift for both of them … and then a car draws up. Perhaps he’ll make it to the conference after all …

I think what Frayn is getting at here is that in the long run acceptance of failure causes us far less anguish than the renewal of hope. It’s Stimson’s hope that he may still succeed – ‘I’ve still got time’ – which is driving him on and making him suffer. And this encapsulates a crucial element in the human psyche: we continue to strive – to expend huge amounts of physical and psychological energy – in the hope that this time we may at last achieve our goal. Might it not be less painful just to assume that we won’t? 

I’ve written about hope before in this blog. In particular, Frayn’s idea seems to me to be very close to one expressed by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. Every time Sisyphus sees his rock rolling down the hill, he knows for certain that he’s condemned to rolling it back up again; he also knows that inevitably it’s going to come hurtling straight back down. There’s no end, no meaning that transcends human striving – we just have to keep on going with the tasks we have been allotted, or have chosen for ourselves. To entertain any hope that this may be the last time we’ll have to roll the rock is, for Camus, part of the condition of the absurd (this blog, 17th and 29th May, 2014). Camus’ view of hope, then, is about as bleak as the one presented by the painter Watts. 

I first became interested in the notion of hope a long time ago, when I was reading the poem Works and Days, by the ancient Greek poet Hesiod. The first woman, Pandora, was gifted to human males at a terrible cost, according to Hesiod. (This, I need hardly add, is a text which has aroused much derision among feminist readers). Pandora brought with her a jar of evils – hard work, disease, and sorrow. When she lifted the lid of her jar, the evils flew out into the world. Only hope was left inside, trapped under the rim, and the lid was shut on her (Works and Days 91-100). 

There have been a number of interpretations of this part of the story. Is hope being preserved for the human race, or is it being kept away from us? And, whether we have it or not, should we regard it as being included among the evils? It’s difficult to say; but perhaps at the very least Hesiod wants to warn us – like Frayn and Camus – that hope is far from being a straightforwardly positive concept. 

And yet …  thinking about happiness in the middle of a pandemic hasn’t been easy, and this is my first attempt to add to my blog since February. The onslaught of Covid 19 has made many of us rethink or modify our ideas, and since finding a reference to the ‘Clockwise’ episode in yesterday’s newspaper, I’ve been reflecting again on hope, and whether we need it or not.

All I can say right now is that I’d love to have a bit more of it … but perhaps it would be better to live in the moment, and not hope for too much when everything is so unpredictable? I’m lucky of course that my current moment is not too anguished – which isn’t the case for a lot of people. 




Richard Layard’s Manifesto for Happiness

29 Feb

Layard at RSA

Personal success has become a major object of desire in the 21st century – and the struggle to achieve it can cause us tremendous stress. This was one of the verdicts delivered by the happiness expert Richard Layard in a talk about his latest book, Can we be happier? Evidence and Ethics, which he gave last month at the Royal Society of Arts in London.

(30 January; go to  for a video recording).

In the book he offers a forceful elaboration on this theme. People wonder, he says, ‘why – if we are now so much richer than previous generations – we are not a lot happier. The answer is surely the ultra-competitive nature of the dominant culture. The objective it offers is success compared with other people. But, if I succeed, someone else has to fail. So we have set ourselves up for a zero-sum game: however hard we all try to succeed, there can be no increase in overall happiness.’ The narcissistic tendencies which encourage 31% of American school students to believe that they will one day be famous are also to be found ‘in the candidate whom American electors knowingly chose as their president in 2016. As Donald Trump elegantly put it: “Show me someone without an ego and I’ll show you a loser.” ‘  (Can we be happier?

This state of affairs, Layard believes, has come about, in part, through the collapse of religious belief in developed countries: nowadays, the default position of many of us is unadorned egotism. This is a cliché, but none the less true for that. It’s also come about, I might add, through the collapse of many aspects of communitarianism (eg. the prioritisation of public services in government spending plans), and through the rise of an ideology of individualism. 

But Layard has plans for dealing with our selfishness. Our goal, he says, shouldn’t be personal success, but the creation of as much happiness in the world as possible. This sounds desperately altruistic (not to say naïve), but that isn’t necessarily the case. Creating happiness for others, Layard maintains, inevitably means creating it for ourselves: we can’t tackle the rest of the world without working on ourselves at the same time. Or, as Anne Frank put it in her diary, ‘Whoever is happy will make others happy too … How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world’.

Some of us think that improving the world requires wholesale political transformations, rather than just an aptitude for spreading happiness. But Layard wouldn’t necessarily disagree with us: he’s well aware of the problems of poverty and disempowerment. The solutions he offers, however, may simply not be adequate to confront the scale of the world’s angst. Some of his recommendations, in brief, are as follows:

  • Schools should measure the well-being of their students, and teach life-skills.
  • Workers need to be given more control over their work organisations.
  • Mental health is a crucial factor: therapy needs to be much more widely available, especially for children.
  • We need better town planning and public services to tackle, among other things, the great problem of loneliness.

Layard knows that implementing these measures takes money; but he believes that in richer countries (like ours) this should be achievable through a shift in government priorities, rather than a radical redistribution of wealth. As an illustration of the kind of policy changes he has in mind, he points out that in October 2019 the European Council called on its members ‘to put people and their wellbeing at the centre of policy design.’  ( ). New Zealand, Sweden and Iceland are among the countries which now have wellbeing budgets prioritising social and environmental factors rather than GDP (

‘We’re at the beginning of a happiness revolution,’ Layard breezily announced to his audience at the RSA. If only, I thought. The UK is by no means the only country which is a long way from introducing measures such as these. And in the meantime we’re on the brink of climate disaster.

I’m not convinced that Layard has any real understanding of the philosophical complexities of the happiness question – or indeed any desire to get to grips with them. As far as he is concerned, addressing a list of objective criteria – life expectancy, town planning, generosity and so on – is what’s at issue here. He could be right – the ‘objective list’ may well be the way forward when it comes to spreading happiness (see this blog, 20 October 2016). I don’t feel personally that we can really knock his approach, which is nothing if not pragmatic. It’s just that it could be a lot more radical – and as a nation we’re a million miles from even making a start on the kind of programme which Layard is advocating.






Carpe diem … or the devil in the clock

3 Feb

another angry clock


AS far as I know the acronym FOWT – Fear of Wasting Time – is one I invented myself (this blog, 3 September 2018). But it does seem to encapsulate a common anxiety.

On the Psychology Today website (  U.S. doctor Alex Lickerman writes that of all the things that have made him anxious in life, time is probably the most pervasive. One of the examples he cites is certainly familiar to me. During college vacations – a time when he should have been more relaxed – he found that he was increasingly experiencing feelings of dread. The reason, he realised, was that he’d always wanted to be a writer, and the breaks from a busy college schedule seemed like an excellent opportunity to start writing. But somehow or other he never did.  ‘Which, sadly, often made my vacations feel to me like wasted time.’

Years later, and his time anxiety now seems to him to have become extreme. The conclusion he draws is that it stems not just from a fear of death (that is, of running out of time) but also from a fear of wasting his life. ‘My anxiety about time, it turns out, is really anxiety about meaning. That is, I worry constantly that I’m spending my time on things that are meaningless. Or, perhaps I should say, not meaningful enough’.

It isn’t, Lickerman says, that he believes some outside power has assigned a meaning to his life which he’s striving to fulfil.  ‘It’s that I recognize my well-being is largely determined by the importance of the value I feel I’m creating with my life. I want—I need—what I do with my life to matter.’

This makes absolute sense to me. I can certainly empathise with Lickerman when he tells us that as he grows older he becomes ever more convinced that he doesn’t want his life to seem like one long wasted opportunity. Presumably a lot of people feel the same way – it must be the reason why one of the questions included in the annual UK happiness survey is, ‘Overall, to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile?’

As mentioned in my earlier blog, immortality probably wouldn’t be the answer, even if we were capable of achieving it.  We’d still be fretting about meaning, and not spending enough time creating it.  The alternative solution offered by Lickerman is to work out what it is you want to do, and then do it.

‘If you also suffer from time anxiety, I’d encourage you to stop and ask yourself if you aren’t really more anxious about what your life means. About what you’re doing with it. And if it turns out you’re worried that what you’re doing isn’t meaningful enough, then figure out what is meaningful enough and start doing that.

If the contribution you’ve decided to spend your life making in fact feels like the most meaningful contribution you could make, and like me you’re anxious because you’re not always spending your time doing it, remind yourself, as I did, that you don’t need to focus every minute of your life on value creation for value creation to have been what your life was all about.’

A bit tough, maybe? Personally, I think right now the advice  I need to be following is the bit that says, ‘Don’t spend every minute of your life on value creation’. I’m on a tight work schedule, and just tearing myself away from my desk can sometimes seem to require a superhuman effort.  As for shopping, preparing a meal, and sitting down to eat it – that’s way beyond what I can manage.

Which is stupid.  But Lickerman does take account of  self-destructive urges like this one. Basically, I think he’s suggesting that once we’ve decided what is meaningful for us and have tried to organise our lives around it, then we can afford to take a bit of time off.

But not too much. ‘Carpe diem,’ as the Roman poet Horace memorably advised us (Odes 1.11). After all, you never do know when your end is coming:

‘While we speak, envious time is fleeing: so pluck the day,
and believe in the future as little as possible.’

W.H.Auden puts it even less positively. Unlike other animals – ‘Fish in the unruffled lakes … Swans in the winter air’ –  we humans are afflicted with self-consciousness. ‘We, till shadowed days are done,/ We must weep and sing/ Duty’s conscious wrong,/ The devil in the clock,/ The goodness carefully worn/ For atonement or for luck.’ (Song). 

People as time-anxious as I am are probably well advised to renounce the devil in the clock and all his works (eg. crammed diaries, windows notifications, email alerts). But for me ‘plucking the day’ is still important. Just so long as it isn’t much more than an eight-hour day, and it leaves me at least a little time to go to Sainsbury’s and buy half-a-dozen eggs and a bag of potatoes for my tea. 













Happy as sandboys

9 Dec


The other day I mentioned to my friend Janet that Brexit still isn’t making UK citizens unhappy, at least not according to this year’s well-being stats. Her immediate response was, ‘Well that’s because they’ve got their heads in the sand, isn’t it?’

A good point – and one that for me reawakens the whole ‘Is happiness a good thing?’ debate. Few people in Britain can pretend that Brexit doesn’t exist as an issue – it’s been well nigh impossible to avoid the topic during the last three years. But many of us have found that it’s had little impact on our individual happiness levels.  It’s generally the stuff that directly affects us  which governs our sense of well-being: the things that really matter to us are our mental and physical health, and our relationships at home, in our workplaces and in the wider community (see Richard Layard, this blog, 7 June). So far Brexit hasn’t changed anyone’s life in these areas – perhaps because it hasn’t happened yet.

The writer and humorist Clive James wouldn’t have been surprised by this. When he paused to reflect on periods in the past when he was probably happy, he used to find happiness so absurdly self-centred that it made him unhappy just to think about it. ‘Your moments of happiness are not only fleeting, but meaningless in the context of the sufferings of others,’ James concluded (Is happiness enough? A Point of View, 2007, repeated on Radio 4 on 1 December 2019). 

As usual, this kind of reflection puts me in mind of Anton Chekhov, who believed that we’re only able to enjoy happiness because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence (this blog, 10 September 2016, 28 July 2013). And though you’d need a mountain of sand to hide the Brexit issue from the British people, climate change is another matter – most of us find it pretty easy to ignore the problem. As one of the contributors to ‘Start the Week’ said on the radio this morning – in a discussion of  all types of inundation –  ‘If it isn’t happening to you, you don’t think about it.’  While Janet and I were having our conversation about heads in the sand, parts of South Yorkshire were under water, Delhi was smothered in deadly smog, and in Venice  the floods had swept into St Mark’s Basilica. But these events didn’t stop us having a lovely lunch, and finding pleasure in each other’s company. This failure to be downhearted may be inevitable. Hopefully it won’t prevent us from taking action. 

Footnote  Ostriches, I learn from the net, probably don’t hide their heads in the sand, they just look as though they’re doing it. And sandboys were happy because in the 19th century they were employed to spread sand on pub floors to absorb the spills, and were paid in ale. (Which may have been preferable to being sent up chimneys.) I’m rather resistant to the notion that people may need to be drunk in order to be happy, but I do know that in my case a drink or three certainly helps.