Archive | November, 2012

Happiness is a warm puppy?

14 Nov

On BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme this morning there was a report about an on-going study of the lifetime experiences of 268 men, conducted since 1940 by the Harvard Medical School. When he was probed on the question of how happy the men had been, George Vaillant, the Director of the project, said that for him ‘happiness’ is the wrong word, and ’emotional intelligence, skill at human relationships, joy, connection, resilience’ are far more appropriate. “Happiness is too close to hedonism, or getting lucky,” he added.

I can see the value of all the alternative words which he used, but ruling out the hedonistic element – ruling out pleasure, in other words – seems to me to be adopting an approach that ignores the importance of sensual experience in people’s lives. Epicurus would not have approved.

Professor Vaillant went on to say that establishing close human relationships was a big determinant of life expectancy among the people whom they studied.  Today, only 4 out of the 31 people in the study who had no close relationships are still alive, while more than one third of those who do have intimate relationships are still with us (and must now be in their 80s, I assume). “If you want to be happy and don’t have someone to trade smiles with,” the professor said, “Get yourself a puppy.”  Fair enough. But most people need a bit more than a pet, I feel, if they’re going to enjoy long-term happiness.

Incidentally, they really did use the word MEN on the programme. Did they mean that? Since the people chosen for the study were Harvard sophomores in 1940, I guess there’s a good chance that the subjects were indeed all men.Which makes this a much less valuable study than it might have been if the other half of the human race had been included.

Material wellbeing on a downward slope in the UK

13 Nov

The latest news from the Office for National Statistics is that net national income per head (considered to be the best guide to real living standards) has dropped by 13.2% over the last four years. This comes as no surprise – recession and high inflation are responsible. Just in itself this indicates that wellbeing in the UK is on a downward slope: according to the ‘Micawber principle’ that I discussed a few weeks ago, most people need money – just a bit more than enough of it – if they’re going to be happy. We can almost certainly assume that the decline in the national net income is going to impact on people’s sense of ‘how satisfied they are with their life nowadays’,  in the OfNS’s ongoing ‘happiness survey’.

Elsewhere in the happiness forest things are looking a bit brighter. A study carried out by the University of Essex’s Institute for Social and Economic Research found that close friends, playing sport and a stable home life are more important to the happiness of children aged 10-15 than the wealth of their parents. Those whose families are on lower incomes scored much the same as the richer ones in terms of average life satisfaction. We may also be relieved to learn that while up to 1 hour a day on the internet boosts children’s contentment, any more brings the score down because it distracts them from other, more social, activities. But again having enough money seems to be vital: children who have bikes and computers and regular trips to the swimming baths are happier than those who don’t get to enjoy these things.

Interestingly, in the Essex study girls comprise both the most happy and the least happy groups of children. Basically, as they get older girls tend to become less happy. The onset of puberty apparently affects them much more than it does boys; according to the researcher Gundi Knies they also find the increasing pressure to look good hard to cope with. My own childhood is a long way behind me now, but this was certainly true for me: spots, glasses and the perennial question, ‘When will you find a boyfriend?’ caused me such abject misery when I was in my teens that I wouldn’t go back to that time for a million pounds. Sad to realise that things haven’t improved much. Feminism still has a lot of work to do if teenage girls are going to be happier.

The Essex study  is very valuable, because the OfNS happiness survey only covers children over the age of 16. And incidentally, the Children’s Society confirms that having enough money is crucial  to childhood happiness: children from the poorest 20% of households have much lower wellbeing than average. Children value money, not for its own sake, but because of the scope it gives them to enjoy leisure activities with family and friends. Money, in other words, provides  the basis for the creation of the social and emotional relationships which are so important to the great majority of people.

(Statistics taken from a report in The Observer, ‘Today’s happy teenagers just value the simple things in life’, 7/10/12)