Don’t blame Aristotle for Boris Johnson

18 Nov

Aristotle-Face1

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 attacks Gordon Brown, who was about to succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister, for his Puritanism and his ‘worship of work’. For Johnson, exertion and self-restraint are obstacles to our achievement of happiness. And, infuriatingly, he cites Aristotle as an ally:

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 insists, 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 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 life-long activities which satisfy our fundamental rationality. And, he adds, most of us will find it harder to live rational 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

 

George_Frederic_Watts,_1885,_Hope

‘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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=id2PZbXHPZY  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.’  (https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2019/10/24/economy-of-wellbeing-the-council-adopts-conclusions/ ). New Zealand, Sweden and Iceland are among the countries which now have wellbeing budgets prioritising social and environmental factors rather than GDP (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/iceland-gdp-wellbeing-budget-climate-change-new-zealand-arden-sturgeon-a9232626.html)

‘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 (https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/happiness-in-world/201308/time-anxiety)  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

ostrich

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. 

Still no Brexit effect: a brief bulletin from the survey front

3 Nov

The laurels for being the happiest District in the UK have gone back up north, this time to Lancashire. Ribble Valley scored 8.3 on the ‘how happy did you feel yesterday?’ question posed by the Office for National Statistics in its 2018/19 survey. This compares with an average of 7.56 (out of 10) recorded for the country as a whole. 

Lying to the north of Manchester, Ribble Valley adjoins an area which contains a cluster of 19th century boom towns once famed for their cotton weaving. The District itself includes Clitheroe, parts of Blackburn, Burnley and Preston, and also the beautiful Forest of Bowland, as seen below. 

 

Bowland

 

The incessant whirr and clack of power looms is heard no more in the land. Nowadays Ribble Valley is better known for its tranquillity, work-life balance, and, it seems, for its excellent pubs and restaurants. The residents don’t have to settle for unrelieved rural bliss, either.  If they hop on a train they can be in the hotspots of Manchester in just over an hour. That’s having your barm cake and eating it, I’d say. 

Countrywide, the happiness scores relayed to us by the ONS showed little change from the year before.  Average happiness ratings increased from 7.52 to 7.56, while scores for the other measures of personal well-being – life satisfaction, feeling that the things done in life are worthwhile, and anxiety – remained much the same. Regionally, the one significant difference is that anxiety ratings in Northern Ireland – always in the past a statistically laid back country – went up from 2.53 to 2.83 (out of 10). This brought it into line with the other countries of the UK.

Since 2013 average life satisfaction in Britain has improved by 3.4%, with the largest improvement being recorded in London (4.6%). Over the same period, the UK average anxiety ratings improved by 5.3%, with the North West seeing the biggest improvement (9.7%) at regional level. See https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/bulletins/measuringnationalwellbeing/april2018tomarch2019

So Brexit is still not making us unhappy, or it wasn’t, up until the end of March this year. I’m  constantly reading things in the papers like ‘immense political stress’, ‘terrible uncertainty’, ‘restive Britain’. But so far the statistics belie this view of our national mood. Eight months is a long time in Brexitland, however, so once again we await developments.

I apologise for the dodgy link, but one district which succeeded in making me feel quite cheery at the beginning of October was London’s Regent’s Park. It is home to the annual Frieze Art Fair, and some of the bigger sculptures were on display in the Park (all for free). Here for your delight is a giant blackbird’s egg. It’s called ‘The Hatchling’ and was made by Joanna Rajkowska. When you press your ear to the real thing, you hear some baby blackbirds, breaking their way out. Go to https://letrangere.net/news/joanna-rajkowska-the-hatchling-frieze-sculpture-regents-park-london-3-july-6-october-2019/ for a recording. 

blackbird egg (2).jpg

Fear and trembling in Copenhagen

27 Sep

kierkegaard

Anxiety can be fearfully isolating. At its worst it’s a form of madness, cutting us off from all the seemingly normal people around us. ‘Oh I’m not a worrier’ … ‘What me, worry?’ … ‘No worries’.  Badges of honour flaunted by the superficially well-adjusted.

Some of these jaunty souls may be only pretending. Some may be ‘well-dissemblers of their woes’, like the friends of the young nobleman Amintor in Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy. If so, they’d be doing everyone a favour if they occasionally came clean and admitted to the odd passing anxiety. ‘Would I knew it, for the rareness/Afflicts me now,’ the woebegone Amintor declares. It’s a cliché, but knowing we’re not alone can be enormously reassuring.

Confessing to anxiety might be good for the sufferer too, in more ways than one. Three years after the event, an acquaintance of mine who hails from Seattle still seems to feel the need to explain why he didn’t go home for his father’s funeral. ‘I’d seen him just a few months before,’ he insists, ‘what was the point of flying all that way when the old guy was already dead?’ A few days ago, facing the prospect of a trip to Australia, he confided in a whisper that he has a flying phobia. We’d probably all have thought better of him – including the sister who’s never spoken to him since – if he’d admitted to this a long time ago.

For those of us who worry about worrying, it’s comforting to be told by the nineteenth century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard that everybody experiences anxiety and despair. ‘Just as a doctor might say that there probably isn’t a single human being who is completely healthy, so anyone who really knows humanity might say that there isn’t a single human who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbour an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something, or something that he does not dare to try to know.’ (The Sickness unto Death).

Kierkegaard can’t be accused of celebrating misery. But he did embrace the phenomenon as a necessary and inevitable part of the human condition. In the words of Clare Carlise, author of a new biography of Kierkegaard (Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard, April 2019), ‘he believed that true peace and joy come from the depths of the human heart, which can be reached only by contending with life’s uncertainties’ (‘Is anxiety what makes us human? Why Kierkegaard is still relevant today,’ Prospect Magazine, April 2019; https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/is-anxiety-what-makes-us-human-why-kierkegaard-is-still-relevant-today). The ‘nameless dread’ identified by Wilfred Bion (this blog, 12 November 2018) is probably felt at some point by most of humanity. According to Kierkegaard, we shouldn’t rush away from it, but accept and acknowledge it.

Kierkegaard spent most of his life in Copenhagen, a city which he believed to be steeped in spiritual complacency. His Danish compatriots were apparently not good at admitting to anxiety or despair. Instead, they buried these emotions beneath a heap of material and social distractions. ‘I’m far too busy – or far too rich – to be worried’. Clare Carlisle suggests that this may be the reason why the Danes are so obsessed with the concept of hygge (this blog, 10 September 2016), or ‘being cosy and nice’.

If we add together all the pleasurable moments we experience, Kierkegaard tells us, we won’t end up with a life of enduring satisfaction. Rather, it will be a life of endless distractions. Anxiety will out, it will seep in through the cracks. A prolific writer, Kierkegaard dissects this topic in some of his best-known works, including Fear and Trembling and Repetition. On 1st August 1835 he wrote in his journal:

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die….Not until a man has inwardly understood himself and then sees the course he is to take does his life gain peace and meaning; only then is he free of that irksome, sinister travelling companion — that irony of life, which manifests itself in the sphere of knowledge and invites true knowing to begin with a not-knowing (Socrates) just as God created the world from nothing.

Understandably, he is often regarded as a precursor of modern existentialism; his writings influenced later twentieth century philosophers such as Heidegger, Sartre and above all Camus.

If anxiety is the converse of happiness – as two of the well-being questions asked by the Office for National Statistics imply (‘How happy did you feel yesterday?’ and ‘How anxious did you feel yesterday?’) –  then anxiety is an important issue for anyone who is interested in being happy. It’s certainly important for me … so in future blogs I’m going to be exploring in a little more detail the thinking of the nineteenth century philosopher who put worry at the forefront of his explorations of the human psyche.

It isn’t the economy, Stupid

7 Jun

Richard LayardAccording to Richard Layard, interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme a couple of weeks ago (24 May), Bill Clinton was wrong. The economy isn’t what matters most to people when they vote. ‘We know, going back to 1970, what determines why governments get elected all over the world,’ Layard said. ‘People are satisfied with their lives for reasons other than the economy.’

I can’t imagine why I haven’t written about Layard before in this blog. An emeritus professor of economics at the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE, and also a member of the House of Lords, he was one of the first people in the UK to discuss the policy implications of research into happiness. In his bio on the CEP website we’re told that, ‘Since the 1970s he has urged fellow economists to return to the 18th and 19th century idea that public policy should maximise a social welfare function depending on the distribution of happiness’ (http://cep.lse.ac.uk/_new/staff/person.asp?id=970). Layard’s 2005 book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science has been translated into twenty languages, and he’s one of the co-editors of the UN’s World Happiness Reports (this blog, 18 April ).

Layard believes that relative income has a significant effect on happiness levels, but he doesn’t regard this as the most crucial factor when people are making up their minds how to vote. Mental and physical health, followed by relationships at home, at work and in the community, are what people care about most. After that they begin to think about their income. A government is under a moral obligation to give people what matters to them, he told the Today interviewer – and it’s also in the government’s own interests to do this, as it will help it to get re-elected.

‘Mental health should be a top priority when it comes to NHS spending,’ Layard said. He wants an extra £4 billion to be spent on it, in addition to what’s currently being promised in the NHS spending review. This represents a 6% increase in real terms over the next five years; it would help break the logjam whereby mental health always lags way behind physical health in NHS spending plans. He also thinks that there should be a separate budget for mental health within the overall NHS budget.

In line with this thinking, Layard would like to see much more emphasis placed on mental health issues in schools. In South Australia, he told us, there are teachers who are specially trained to give classes in life skills, and that’s something we need in the UK as well. Plus an awareness of well-being should be built into training courses for all of our teachers.

Apprenticeships and increased spending on further education are among the items which Layard supports for the members of the post-school generation who are not going on to university: ‘they need to see a clear path ahead of them in life.’ And for all of us social connections are of course enormously  important. ‘Loneliness is a huge problem nowadays’, he said; and so the UK government needs to restore the cuts to youth clubs, and to centres for children and old people.

None of this is prohibitively expensive, Layard would argue. It’s more a question of governments getting their priorities right. And although all of these measures would undoubtedly cost money, I absolutely take his point that when it comes to cultivating well-being we need to concentrate more on social spending and less on enhancing personal incomes. The consistent top ranking of Scandinavian countries in the world happiness statistics, if nothing else, hammers home this point.

Layard is convinced that people will vote for governments which follow the course he’s recommending, and give people what matters to them. I can only hope – fervently – that he’s right about this.

 

 

Finland, Brexit, Trump … and the joys of reading

18 Apr

woman-reading-at-a-dressing-table-interieur-nice-1919In the UN’s World Happiness Report for 2019, published in March, Finland heads the field for the second year running. The UK has risen five places, from 19th to 15th – once again contradicting the view that no sane person can possibly be happy while contemplating Brexit. And the US has dropped from 18th to 19th, validating the equally entrenched conviction that Americans are bound to be getting more miserable under Donald Trump. 

The happiness report bases its rankings on six variables: income and GDP per capita; the freedom to make life choices; trust in government and perceptions of corruption; healthy life expectancy; social support; and generosity. As in previous years, the last 50 places in the list of 156 nations are mostly occupied by African and Asian countries. South Sudan, devastated by years of civil war, is at the bottom. Yemen, equally afflicted, is at 151. Eastern Europe is represented by Albania, at 107, and Ukraine, at 133. And the one South American country to appear in the last 50 is of course strife-torn Venezuela, at 108.

As usual Scandinavian countries dominate the top ten. Denmark is 2nd, Norway 3rd, and Iceland 4th. Ireland and Germany are just below the UK, at 16 and 17. And the two countries which always surprise us by being apparently less happy than Britain are still ranked lower: France is at 24 and Italy at 36. 

(For the full list, see https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2019/changing-world-happiness/). 

I’ve already rejected the notion  (this blog, 9 June 2018) that climate considerations are the mainspring of Scandinavian happiness. It still seems to me much more likely that relative prosperity and economic equality – involving high taxes and adequate safety nets provided by the state – are the key to 21st century happiness. But as Rachel Kelly points out in The Observer (24 March) money isn’t everything. The report also recognises that freedom, generosity, and support from social networks all make a difference. 

This may give rise to a belief in the possibility of personal change. Kelly is sure that individual happiness levels aren’t fixed. Her own experience of combating major depressive episodes has convinced her that we all have an ability to cultivate happiness.  She doesn’t want to rule out medication and cognitive behavioural therapy, the NHS’s main approaches to the treatment of mental illness. These do have a part to play, she says. But she also thinks that a sense of one’s own agency is very important. 

‘I have found that while thinking often makes me sad, doing rarely does. A sense of my own autonomy was essential to getting better. .. Simple daily acts such as paying proper attention when someone talks to you can transform how generous we are to others – and how happy we feel. Equally, there is much that we can do to increase our sense of social support: even light-touch socialising can boost our mood.’

Kelly’s strategies for remaining calm and well include bibliotherapy – the use of planned reading programmes to help people overcome anxiety and emotional disorders. This technique, I learn, has been employed in hospitals since the early years of the twentieth century.  It can be deeply serious. According to The Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science (https://www.abc-clio.com/ODLIS/odlis_b.aspx), Ideally, the process occurs in three phases: personal identification of the reader with a particular character in the recommended work, resulting in psychological catharsis, which leads to rational insight concerning the relevance of the solution suggested in the text to the reader’s own experience. Assistance of a trained psychotherapist is advised.’ 

For most of us, however, it may be enough just to pick up a book when we’re feeling sad or stressed, and let our engagement with a world beyond our own lead us away from anguish. Personally I find it a very effective way of  soothing the mind. And who knows? – it may even help us to cope a bit better with Brexit. 

For earlier posts on Finland and on Brexit, see 9 June 2018; and 13 and 12 January 2019, 10 October 2018, and 4 October, 2017. 

 

 

 

 

When we’re 64

2 Mar

Men and women in the UK are still officially at their happiest when they reach the fabled age of 70 – and from 64 onward they’re gradually building up to it. A study of the Office for National Statistics’ wellbeing data for the years 2010-17 (the entire input since the surveys began) has confirmed what the individual annual reports have already indicated (see this blog, Feb 2016 ): it’s worth hanging in there till you’re in your late 60s, because for most people life gets so much better then.  With any luck the kids have left home,  you’re probably working fewer hours,  you need less money, and you may even have learnt a thing or two about how to live. 

old lady southwark

David Cameron, when he introduced the happiness surveys in 2010, remarked, ‘There’s more to life than money. It’s time we focussed not just on GDP but on GWB – general wellbeing.’

Easy to say that, of course, when you’re so wealthy you can afford to shell out for a glorified shed a sum (£25,000) which exceeds many people’s annual income. George Bangham – a policy analyst with the Resolution Foundation, the thinktank which carried out the study – provides a useful corrective. The quest for wellbeing, he says, ‘should complement, rather than replace, priorities such as income redistribution, better jobs and secure housing. The data shows that there’s more to life than a country’s GDP, but that the employment and income trends that lie behind our economy can make a big difference to our wellbeing too.’  (Guardian, 13 Feb 2019)

OR as Aristotle told us over two thousand years ago (this blog, February 2019), ‘flourishing’, or eudaimonia, requires an effort of the human will –  and it isn’t necessarily easy to achieve it if you haven’t got sufficient money or power.