Archive | June, 2013

Cast-aside cares

19 Jun

bust of Epicurus

I read this recently in The Beautiful and Damned by F.Scott Fitzgerald:

                        Happiness is only the first hour after the alleviation of some especially intense misery.

The Roman poet Catullus said something similar:

o quid solutis est beatius curis  (poem 31)

                            Oh what is more blissful than cast-aside cares?

Catullus wasn’t offering this as a complete definition of happiness, although he may well have felt that ‘cast-aside cares’ was the nearest he himself was going to get to the experience of well-being.  He’s a poet who is well known for his unhappy love life, and he died at a very young age.

Epicurean philosophy may superficially seem to be sending the same message as Catullus. Epicurus (that’s him in the picture) believes that the optimum of pleasure is reached in the absence of pain. But for him, it is the life-long management of your desires, so that pains are removed as quickly and cheaply as possible, that produces overall happiness. Happiness isn’t just the glorious wave of relief that sweeps over you when something you’ve been dreading has been more or less successfully completed (though that’s certainly a delightful sensation).

When we say that pleasure is the goal of life, we’re not talking about sensual indulgence. No, we’re talking about freedom from physical discomfort and mental anxiety. A life of pleasure isn’t drinking, or partying, or exquisite food, or plenty of sex. A life of pleasure is the outcome of sober reflection. Why? Because sober reflection enables you to examine your motives in every situation, and decide what to do and what not to do…Careful observation of  our various desires enables us to consider the range of options available to us, so that on each occasion we make descisions that enhance our physical welfare and keep our minds free from anxiety. This is the objective which is proper to a life of happiness.

Epicurus, Letter on Happiness

Happy Down Under?

3 Jun


The results of yet another happiness survey were announced last week. The Better Life Index produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development measures wellbeing among 36 industrialised nations. For the third year running Australia has come top. The UK was placed 10th (up two places from last year), the US 6th, Germany 17th and France 18th.

Italy, the European country where I’ve always thought I might be happy to settle if forced to leave Britain, was a lowly 23rd. Greece, unsurprisingly, was way down, at number 30.

The rankings are based on material factors such as life expectancy and employment rates, but also take into account considerations  like life satisfaction and civic engagement.

Here in Britain we scored below average on work-life balance, with 12% of us working very long hours. There’s also a widening gap between the richest and the poorest, with the top 20% earning nearly six times as much as the bottom 20%. But we come out well on income and employment levels. Reassuringly, our best scores are for the environment and safety on the streets. Apparently our murder rates are almost half the OECD average.  Our educational attainment is lower than in other comparable countries though, so we could do much better there.

One economist, David Blanchflower, has questioned the award of first place to Australia, criticising the weight which the survey accords to different measures. “Australia ranks 12th in the ‘life satisfaction’ category, which you would think was quite important,”  he says. Yes indeed.