Was he free? Was he happy? …

1 Aug

This question is posed by W.H.Auden in his poem ‘The Unknown Citizen’, written in 1940. It’s part of an imaginary epitaph composed by state bureaucrats for an anonymous but exemplary Citizen.      

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:                                  Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

The bureaucrats in the UK’s Office for National Statistics think a query of this kind is better addressed to the Citizens themselves, while they are still alive. ‘Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?’ is one of the questions they ask in their Integrated Household Survey.

interviewer

I approve of ‘happiness’ questions, and I’m certainly not out to criticise this initiative. But we do need to be aware of the problems associated with answers to life satisfaction queries. When we ask people if they’re satisfied with their lives, they’re inclined to say, ‘Yeah … it’s OK … it could be a lot worse’. Most people tend to believe that their lives are good enough. As the philosopher Daniel M.Haybron points out, (‘Happiness and Its Discontents’, The New York Times, April 13, 2014), even in some desperately poor countries the majority of the population are recorded as being satisfied with their lives. Perhaps this happens because we don’t like admitting, even to ourselves, that we haven’t got everything we want or need. It’s easier just to put up with it; there’s nothing worse than telling yourself you’re miserable and then not being able to do anything about it.  ‘This sounds like resignation, not happiness,’ Haybron comments.

And it’s difficult to draw any comparative conclusions from data garnered in this way. In some cultures they set the aspiration bar very low, while in others it’s ridiculously high. So how ‘satisfied’ you are depends very much on where you are living. Is Bhutan, for example, a happier country than the US?  Most world-wide happiness surveys will tell us that this is the case, but this may not be particularly meaningful. Perhaps people in Bhutan just aren’t aware how much better life could be if their homes had electricity and their food supplies were more assured. People in the U.S., on the other hand, may still be hankering after the American Dream, so don’t record very high satisfaction levels. 

Or maybe the surveys are right, and the secret of happiness really does lie in ‘not wanting very much’?  I think I heard one of the characters in Angels in America (possibly Prior) suggest something very like this while he was in a fit of existential despair.  Perhaps everyone, throughout the world, would benefit from a dose of low expectations? Whatever we think about this, we probably have to agree that the responses to the ‘how satisfied are you?’ question aren’t necessarily going to tell us a great deal about  relative levels of  happiness.

Another problem with the question is that a declaration of life satisfaction is compatible with highly negative emotional states, like depression. I speak as one who knows. When I’m plummeting into the abyss, a query about whether I’m satisfied with my life would be meaningless, to say the least. ‘On the face of it my life is fine,’ I’d have to admit if anyone asked. ‘It’s just that life’s too hard for me.  I’m too rubbish to be satisfied. Mind you, I’m not dissatisfied either. I’m just in hell. Sorry.’  But once I’ve  crawled out of the pit – inch by painful inch – I’d  probably report that my life is actually  rather wonderful.

So for me, it would depend on when you asked the question. On my good days – the majority of my days – I’d say that I’m  highly satisfied. But that doesn’t take away the pain of the thirty-odd days a year when I’d  probably prefer not to exist.

Others might freely admit to having sad and difficult lives, but to being nevertheless highly satisfied. Yes, they find their existence gruelling, yes, they’re overworked and badly paid, but what does that matter? They’re struggling to achieve something that is really worthwhile, and that’s what gives them satisfaction. You needn’t be a depressive to express this view  – in fact, you’re probably not one, since confidence in the validity of what  you’re working on isn’t  generally the hallmark of the depressive.  But people slogging their guts out on back-breaking projects and not minding that their existence is pretty bleak might  well say, yes, they’re gloomy, but yes, they’re also satisfied.

So is there any alternative to asking us about life satisfaction? How about trying to find out how we feel instead?  This is the question which is constantly being put to high achievers by interviewers in the media – how did you feel when you won the Oscar, broke the world record, received the Nobel prize? It’s also one of the further questions addressed to very ordinary people by the Office for National Statistics. ‘How happy did you feel yesterday?’ It concerns itself with our mental or emotional state. In my next blog I’ll be wondering if this is a better way of testing our happiness.

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