Archive | April, 2013

Work, love, or progress – or should we just go to Moscow?

28 Apr

three sisters

Yesterday I finished reading Chekhov’s Three Sisters, inspired by the Benedict Andrews version of the play which I saw last autumn at the Young Vic. I noticed at the time that there were many references to happiness in the play, and they’re present in the English translation of the text as well.

In Act 1 the youngest of the three sisters, Irina, is seeking happiness in work. She believes that a privileged young woman like herself, who wakes at twelve, has coffee in bed, then spends two hours dressing, cannot possibly be happy.

“A man ought to work… all the purpose and meaning of his life, his ecstasies, lie in that alone.”

The sisters’ brother Andrey feels happy in Act 1 because his heart is full of love. And for Vershinin, a military man and progressivist with a miserable domestic existence, the truly happy life is something which we must strive for but which is always out of reach. Work brings happiness, but not to us.

“It seems to me that everything on earth is bound to change by degrees and is already changing before our eyes. In two or three hundred, perhaps in a thousand years — the time does not matter — a new, happy life will come. We shall have no share in that life, of course, but we’re living for it, we’re working, well, yes, and suffering for it, we’re creating it — and that alone is the purpose of our existence, and is our happiness, if you like.”

Vershinin is willing to suffer for the future happiness of others:

“…there is no happiness for us, there ought not to be and will not be. . . . We must work and work, and happiness is the portion of our remote descendants… If it’s not for me, at least it’s for the descendants of my descendants. . . .”

And he adopts the uncomfortable position of telling others that the happiness which they think they’re enjoying is illusory. When young Tuzenbakh interposes with ‘But what if I’m happy?’ Vershinin’s prompt rejoinder is, ‘You’re not.’

All three sisters, Olga, Masha and Irina, dream of moving back to Moscow.

“Go away to Moscow. Sell the house, finish with everything here,
and go to Moscow …”

For them, as for Vershinin, the happy and meaningful life which they dream of is always out of reach, always unattainable.

It isn’t a cheery play, and all these definitions of happiness are shown one way or another to be deeply flawed. When Irina does find work in the local telegraph office, she feels that it is purposeless, and without poetry.

IRINA I’ve been a telegraph clerk and now I have a job in the town council and I hate and despise every bit of the work they give me. . . . I’m already twenty-three, I’ve been working for years, my brains are drying up, I’m getting thin and old and ugly and there’s nothing, nothing, not the slightest satisfaction, and time is passing and you feel that you are moving away from a real, a beautiful life, moving farther and farther away and being drawn into the depths.

Irina’s sister Olga, a teacher, and their old nanny Anfisa are both worn out by their working lives. And the plight of the 81-year-old Anfisa illustrates one problem with pinning all your happiness on the work ethic: what happens when you can’t work any longer? Anfisa is terrified that she will be sent away from the house, and if the three women’s awful sister-in-law Natasha gets her way, she will:

NATASHA She’s not fit for work. She does nothing but sleep or sit still.
OLGA. Well, let her sit still.
NATASHA How, sit still? Why, she’s a servant. I don’t understand you, Olya. I’ve a nanny to look after the children as well as a wet nurse for baby, and we have a housemaid and a cook, what do we want that old woman for? What’s the use of her?

Love is equally unreliable as a source of happiness. Andrey’s wife Natasha has a lacklustre affair with her husband’s boss, the chair of the district council. At the same time Andrey’s sister Masha, who despises her husband Kulygin, has been falling in love with Vershinin, whose work is about to take him away from her.

MASHA. When you get happiness by snatches, by little bits, and then lose it, as I’m losing it, by degrees one grows coarse and spiteful . . . I’m boiling here inside . . . Here’s our Andrey, . . . All our hopes are shattered. It’s like thousands of people raised a huge bell, a lot of money and of labour was spent on it, and it suddenly fell and smashed. All at once, for no reason whatever. That’s just how it is with Andrey . . .

Perhaps there is a way through all this. Irina decides eventually to marry Tuzenbakh, although she doesn’t love him.

IRINA. I’ve made up my mind, since I’m not fated to be in Moscow, that so it must be. It must be destiny. …He’s a good man, it’s wonderful really how good he is. . . . And I suddenly felt as though my soul had grown wings, my heart felt so light and again I longed for work, work …

But at the end of the play Tuzenbakh is killed in a senseless duel.

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UK child well-being improves (a bit). But will it last?

13 Apr

In a UNICEF report on worldwide child well-being published last week, the UK has moved up to 16th place in the table after being placed at the bottom of the ranking in 2007. Things have improved for our children where things like obesity, and drinking and smoking are concerned. And UK children’s own assessment of their lives has improved considerably, with more than 85% of British children saying they have a high level of overall life satisfaction. But this report was compiled using data that was collected before 2010, i.e. before the present government’s austerity measures kicked in. So things may look worse for our children when the next UNICEF report is published.

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Les Miserables? Why are the French not happier?

5 Apr

I’ve always thought that  for most people ‘dreaming the impossible dream’ was probably not a reliable route to happiness. By all means be aspirational, but pinning all your hopes on widely recognised success will surely leave a lot of people believing that they have failed in life.

Some evidence in support of this view is now being reported from France. Last Wednesday Claudia Senik, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, gave a lecture at the Royal Economic Society in which she argued that the ‘mentality’ of the French makes them less happy than other European peoples.

The self-declared happiness ratings of the French are low, and their suicide rate is high, in spite of a good standard of living and generous welfare provision.  Interestingly, Senik’s study of data drawn from the European Social Survey reveals that French people living in other European countries are less happy than the natives, while people who move to France are happier than the indigenous population. But the longer they stay in France, the less happy they claim to be.

Senik believes that there is something in the culture that makes people living in France miserable. One factor, she argues, is the high bench mark which they are encouraged to refer to. This is partly the fault of the schools. These are academically demanding and at the same time egalitarian. Everyone has the same opportunities, and everyone is expected to do well. So those who don’t get high grades feel miserable. As Senik says, ‘Not everyone can be in the top 5%’.

Confirmation of this view was provided on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme last Friday by Ken Tatham, the English mayor of a French town. His children were educated in both British and French schools. In the French ones the schedule is punishing: the children have to graft from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and there is little time for sports or leisure.  British schools, Tatham claims, are breeding a happier child.

I hope the government ministers who were arguing last summer that too many children were doing well in GCSE exams, and that the standards need to be raised, will take note of the happiness issues at stake here. Do we really want our education system to be creating a set of ‘winners and losers’?