Archive | September, 2015

Can we teach happiness (and is it worthwhile)?

23 Sep

Dalai Lama     A couple of days ago the Dalai Lama’s endorsement of an Action for Happiness course which offers training in how to be happy made the headlines. ‘Can happiness really be taught?’ the media were asking.

Personally I’m not knocking such courses. I’m sure lots of people find them helpful. At one time I would probably have got quite a lot out of one myself; and they certainly provide a cheaper alternative to psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. But I’d like to make a couple of observations. 

Firstly, on the individual level if we want to achieve something we generally have to suffer a bit, or even quite a lot. We have to work and worry and deal with self-doubt and stay at our desks or in our workshops instead of going out to the pub with our friends. And secondly, for me, the happiness of the individual is not the main point. I found an excellent illustration of this in a comment made by one of the previous participants in a happiness course. ‘I’ve not got a lot of money,’ the young woman said. ‘But I’ve learnt to get pleasure from some very simple things, like buying a homeless person a sandwich and a cup of coffee. Something like that makes me feel so much better.’ 

Good on her. It’s more than I ever do for a homeless person, and I bet the recipient as well as the giver felt better for a while too. But we mustn’t believe that the homeless person’s prospects are going to be fundamentally changed by her action. The point as far as the homeless person is concerned is that the rest of us ought to be struggling to change the world, not just making it a little bit nicer for the one on the streets. For the individual who takes on such a burden on a full-time basis this may well mean the end of happiness, not its beginning, because it will be hard and exhausting and soul-destroying and certainly in the short term a failure. I’m not brave enough to do it myself, but I do hope that there are people out there who will make that sacrifice, because there’s an awful lot that needs to be done.  

When ignorance is far from bliss

17 Sep

Dancing_maenad_Python_BM_VaseF253Last night I saw the new production of Euripides’ Bakkhai , translated by Anne Carson, at London’s Almeida Theatre. Pentheus the young king of Thebes is trying to suppress a new religion that is sweeping like wildfire through his land. His own mother Agave is the leader of a host of women who have streamed out of the city to worship the wonderful young god Dionysus in the wild. When Agave returns to the city in triumph bearing aloft the head of a lion that she has hunted down in the mountains, her old father Cadmus confronts her. You have to face up to what you have done, he tells her. If you don’t, you will be unhappy but you won’t know it. 

Do we believe that a woman like Agave should  be left in blissful ignorance? Should we let her enjoy her moment of joy,  even though most of us could never consider her to be truly happy?  Or do we inform her that she is in fact the most wretched of women, since she hasn’t just slaughterd a lion – as she believes in her ecstasy –  but her own son Pentheus? 

Some forms of happiness just cannot be tolerated, it seems – not because we have outraged the rest of society, but because we have done something which one part of our being would lament to its deepest core. We have to recognise the true nature of our actions. We cannot simply live in the ignorant moment.

England’s unhappy schoolkids

8 Sep


This is the most depressing of the recent happiness surveys … In August the Children’s Society annual Good Childhood  report published the findings of an international survey which shows that 10 and 12 year-olds in England are unhappier than their counterparts in almost all of the 15 countries surveyed.

The results were based on a survey of 53,000 children, aged ten and twelve, in England, Germany, Norway, South Korea, Poland, Estonia, Spain, Turkey, Romania, Algeria, South Africa, Israel, Ethiopia, Colombia, and Nepal. Overall, the study concludes that children in 13 of these countries are happier than they are in England. The only country that comes below us is South Korea.

If we break the results down into subject areas, we find that children in England are unhappier with their school life than those in almost every other country, with  more than a third (38%) of 10 and 12 year olds in England having been physically bullied in the last month, and half (50%) having felt excluded. Only Germany, South Korea and Estonia do worse than England in this category.

Matthew Read, chief executive of the Childrens Society, said, ‘It is deeply worrying that children in this country are so unhappy at school compared with other countries. School should  be a safe haven not a battleground.’

In other areas of their lives – friendships, money, possessions  – English children recorded  relatively high satisfaction.

For me the most shocking finding is that children in England were particularly dissatisfied with their appearance, with girls being most affected. Girls in England ranked bottom in terms of happiness with their body confidence, appearance and self-confidence compared to girls in every other country surveyed, with the exception of South Korea. Girls in Colombia topped the league table as being happiest with their bodies.

Girls in England were more than twice as likely as boys to say they are unhappy with their bodies (18% compared with 8%). This gender difference was not found in many other countries.

On the findings in general, Professor Jonathan Bradshaw from the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at York (which collaborated with the Children’s Society on this research) said, ‘Children are our future. Their well-being matters to us all. As a nation we pay enormous attention to the well-being of our economy, the state of the weather, sporting league tables, the City and the Stock Market. Indicators of these take up pages of the media every day. We need to make more effort to monitor the well-being of our children and we need to devote more resources to understanding how they are doing and to ensuring that their childhood is as good as it can be.’

The Children’s Society is calling for questions about how happy children feel to be included in the Department of Health’s nationwide survey into children’s mental health.

I don’t think we need to look very far to discover why girls in England worry so much about their appearance. I read a news item about the survey on the front page of The Guardian on August 19th. Taking up the whole of the back page there was an advert for perfume featuring a woman in an extremely low-slung backless frock, looking at the reader invitingly over her shoulder. Our newspapers, magazines and public spaces are stuffed with images like this one. Who could blame girls for thinking that having a desirable body is the be-all and end-all of their existence?  Our press and advertising are a national disgrace. There are, of course, far worse examples than the one offered by The Guardian.



Another month, another survey …

1 Sep

I’ve had a busy summer, and a backlog of happiness surveys has been building up in my in-tray.

In April the UN’s third World Happiness Report, which surveyed 158 countries, put the UK one place higher than it had in its previous publication of 2013. Switzerland, Iceland and Denmark occupied the top three places, while Britain came in at number 21.

Then May saw the publication of the 2015 SEDA, the Sustainable Economic Development Assessment carried out by the Boston Consulting Group. This evaluates how effectively the 149 countries surveyed convert wealth into well-being. The facets it examines are wealth or GDP; employment/unemployment; income disparities; water, transport, sanitation and communication; quality of the environment; access to healthcare; educational quality; government institutions and civic freedoms; and social bonds and gender equality.

The report shows that Poland’s improvement in overall well-being between 2006 and 2013 was higher than that of any other country when adjusted for how much each economy grew. Poland’s overall well-being score of 71.6 was lower than the UK’s, at 81.1. But under the heading of educational quality Poland easily outperformed Britain, scoring 90 out of 100 as compared with our 74 (the European average is 82). Educationally Poland is ahead of the UK in terms of teacher/pupil ratio and levels of tertiary enrolment. In both measures in Britain we’re falling further and further behind the world average. Poland also outperformed Britain under the heading of healthcare, scoring 90 against our 87.

Overall Norway was at the top of the well-being list. As usual, Scandinavian countries dominated the top ten, with Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland all making it. They were joined by Switzerland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria and Singapore. The UK came 19th, just behind Japan and France.

In his foreword to the report Nobel prize-winning economist A. Michael Spence sums up the whole point of the survey: ‘To pursue well-being effectively, countries need to achieve economic growth that is both socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable.’

These days the UK doesn’t do particularly well in either of these areas. And things get worse …