Archive | September, 2012

Mr.Micawber on happiness

23 Sep

Last night we went to see Simon Callow perform The Mystery of Charles Dickens at the Playhouse Theatre in London (where we live). One of the famous Dickensian maxims that he worked into the performance was Mr Wilkins Micawber’s, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”  (from David Copperfield)

For many people, I imagine, Mr.Micawber’s pronouncement expresses one of the givens of happiness. Money may not make you happy – indeed, it’s worth noting that Micawber doesn’t want a lot of money, just enough, or a bit more than enough. But without enough money, it’s very difficult indeed to be happy.  This is certainly true for me. I want not to have to worry about money. But I don’t want a lot of it. I feel sure that too much would make me miserable.

Mr. Micawber Conducts David Home, by Harold Copping, 1924.

From Character Sketches from Dickens, facing p. 102.  Scanned image, caption, and commentary by Philip V. Allingham. See


Happiness survey: can we really measure happiness?

15 Sep

Probably only in broad terms. As many people have pointed out, it’s a pretty subjective business. But we can at least get a rough indication of how people in the country are feeling. And what happens next? – what is the Government going to do with the figures? That’s the important bit, of course, and it remains to be seen. But if we never try we’ll never know how useful these statistics might be. One thing I feel pretty sure about: the aim of government policy should be to create conditions in which as many people as possible can achieve happiness, if that’s what they want (they’re free to remain miserable if they prefer that, it’s a rational response to human existence). And just as it would be stupid not to collect statistics on ill health when shaping NHS policy, so it’s stupid, in my opinion, not to try to assess how happy people are when shaping policies that will determine huge areas of people’s lives.

All this begs the question of what happiness actually is. I don’t think that’s something the survey needs to concern itself with. If people think they are happy, then they are happy, for these purposes. Debates about what it means and how in overall terms it can be achieved belong elsewhere. That’s the main reason why I started this blog – because I want to examine a few ideas about happiness and consider how they work in twenty-first century Britain.

Happiness survey results

8 Sep

In July of this year the preliminary results of a ‘happiness survey’ carried out by the Office for National Statistics between 2011 and 2012 were published. For the first time the on-going Integrated Household Survey had included questions on what the OfNS prefers to call ‘well being’ rather than happiness. The results are in some ways quite encouraging. The 165,000 people surveyed had been asked to rate themselves on a scale of 0 to 10 on four questions:

  • overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
  • to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
  • overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
  • how anxious did you feel yesterday?

                The averages scored for questions 1 to 3 in the UK as a whole were 7.41, 7.66 and 7.28  (suggesting that when people sit back and reflect on their lives they feel slightly better about the way things are going than they do when they think about their experiences on one particular day). On the last question we scored, on average, 3.14. If you look at the responses region by region, then Orkney and Shetland, Northern Ireland, and South-West England come out as the most happy and least anxious parts of the country.  Looked at in terms of age, people are happiest in their teenage years and after they’ve reached retirement age. No surprise where the latter are concerned, but whatever happened to teenage angst?  A bit of a myth, perhaps. And married or cohabiting people are happier than the single, the widowed and the divorced.

                So we may be a nation of congenital moaners, but most of us are, it seems, reasonably content with our lives. This result seems to have been confirmed  by our recent Olympic experience. During the Games we came over, somewhat to my surprise, as people who are to a large extent at home in our new, post-colonial identity. Apparently we like a bit of a do, volunteering, and being kind to complete strangers.

                Perhaps the most important thing a survey like this can do is to help us understand why some people are unhappy. There’s nothing earth-shattering about the discovery that if you’re unemployed you’re far more likely to be dissatisfied with your life than if you’re not (45% of the unemployed scored less than 7 out of 10 on that particular question). But the fact that it’s predictable doesn’t mean we can ignore the finding. I have always been very much in favour of the introduction of  ‘the happiness survey’, because like others I think we need measures other than those of pure economic output to show how we’re doing as a country. But the survey was certainly controversial, and one of the obvious dangers was that if the results showed us to be reasonably happy,  then the Government might start congratulating itself on doing a good job. So if booing George Osborne at the Olympics isn’t enough, let Osborne and Cameron have a look at the survey returns for the unemployed, and then take some serious action.