Archive | August, 2018

Happiness through the looking-glass

20 Aug

Here’s another interesting fact I gleaned from Leo Johnson’s ‘Hacking Happiness’ series:  our brains, according to Italian neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, contain a small circuit ofmirror cells called mirror neurons.  These are activated when we perform particular actions – such as smiling or shouting  or when we observe other people performing the same actions.  Mirror neurons wire us up to want what other people want.  Your friend smiles, you smile. In this way we develop what are termed mimetic desires: we don’t want things because they give us simple pleasure, but because lots of other people seem to find them desirable.  This, Iacoboni says, becomes a mighty force when it operates in the realm of social media.

I can well believe this. Mirror neurons help to explain a number of familiar responses. Such as why a few years ago I was willing to queue for five hours to see a play which I was only mildly interested in until I discovered that all the tickets were sold and people were talking about it … or  why everyone throngs to the same beaches … or why individuals get so fired up when they come together in crowds.

The lesson for happiness-pursuers, I suppose, is that it’s always a good idea to closely examine our desires and try to decide what we really really want – as Epicurus nearly said.

What we really want is not always fathomable, of course. The play I queued five hours to see was pretty good, but it was impossible for me to judge it rationally, because it would have had to be bloody brilliant to justify sitting for that long on the stairs at the Royal Court theatre. On the other hand, I did meet someone in the queue who became a friend. I learned something worth knowing  too – that well-off people send their au pairs and cleaners to queue for return tickets, which is one of the reasons why this system is so unfair. And above all the experience was worthwhile because it satisfied one of my deeply rooted Protestant principles: I suffered, and eventually I was rewarded.

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Are we pursuing happiness … or is happiness pursuing us?

1 Aug

More specifically – in the words of Leo Johnson – is the happiness industry pursuing us?

Johnson’s series ‘Hacking happiness’ (BBC radio 4, July 16-20) is one the best explorations of happiness issues I’ve come across recently. A central theme of the first programme was the corporate happiness agenda. Companies are now appointing CHO’s, or Chief Happiness Officers, Johnson tells us. The idea is to make workers happy, not because happiness is a desirable end in itself, but because it’s a good way of boosting productivity. People will work harder if they’re happy.

This agenda sounds pretty sinister, and I think Johnson is right to be sceptical about its objectives. But I wouldn’t want to go overboard in condemning it. We could just as easily point out that people will work harder if they get higher pay and longer holidays: should we therefore condemn these measures as part of a capitalist plot to grind the faces of the workers and exploit them all the more thoroughly?  If trying to make employees happy is part of an overall package that includes decent pay and better employment rights, then I’m certainly not going to argue against it. 

eating a sandwich in the street

 Much more sinister, in my view, is the appalling pressure which is sometimes placed on workers to assume the appearance of happiness, as a way of pleasing their customers. This doesn’t just involve training them to smile inanely and cry, ‘No problem!’ and ‘Enjoy the rest of your day!’ at every available opportunity. The sandwich company Pret a Manger, for example, seems to be notorious for insisting that its workers have a sense of fun, and for giving them the push or docking their wages if they display ‘latent sadness.’ This while paying them, needless to say, rather less than the living wage (Wikipedia, ‘Pret a Manger’).

Oh for the happy days of yesteryear, when diners used to flock to the German restaurant Schmidt’s on London’s Charlotte Street, just for the privilege of being insulted by its surly waiters. Sadly, waiters and waitresses nowadays are compelled to work their socks off for very little money AND be nice to the customers while doing it. It’s one of the joys of living in a service economy.