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Happy in the centre of your being?

8 Sep

How happy did you feel yesterday?  Conversely, how anxious did you feel yesterday? These two questions, posed by the Office for National Statistics in its integrated household survey, are a kind of thermometer employed by the OfNS to check the British population’s emotional temperature. We’re not being asked how much pleasure or pain we experienced yesterday, or how many of our desires we managed to satisfy. Just how happy or anxious we felt. 

Dartmoor pic

Most people will have little difficulty in recognising anxiety, but it’s hard to predict how respondents are going to interpret the word ‘happy’. The underlying implication is that feeling happy is the opposite of feeling anxious, and if we respond in that vein, then as Daniel Haybron suggests (‘Happiness and its Discontents’, New York Times 13 April, 2014), we’re telling  the OfNS about our emotional well-being. How ‘untroubled, confident, comfortable in our own skins’ were we feeling yesterday? In other words, what was our overall emotional condition? ‘To be happy,’ writes Haybron, ‘is to inhabit a favourable emotional state.’

Pleasure and pain aren’t the issue here. We may have had tremendous fun yesterday – an enjoyable meal, some great sex. Or we may have had some unpleasant experiences, like a bout of toothache, or an argument with a colleague. But did these episodes affect our basic feelings?  Perhaps we felt anxious in spite of the sex, or happy in spite of the toothache. Pleasure and pain aren’t necessarily tied into our emotional well-being, and it’s the latter that the OfNS is trying to gauge.

“‘I have a headache.’ Well, don’t say, ‘Oh no!’ ‘I’ve got earache.’  Again, don’t say, ‘Oh no!’ I’m not suggesting that you’re not allowed to groan, just that you shouldn’t groan in the centre of your being.” This is a quote from the Discourses of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (1.18.19). How you’re feeling in the centre of your being is what interests this thinker, and it’s probably what the ‘happy’ and ‘anxious’ queries are getting at too.

Haybron thinks that it’s worth posing these questions because ‘our emotional conditions may provide the single best indicator of how, in general, our lives are going.’ So the OfNS gets some useful data from our answers. But thinking about these things may be good for us as well, for the respondents as well as the questioners. Instead of scrutinising the day’s events, one by one, we should try looking at the bigger picture. Does the way we are living make sense? ‘Often, the signals of the emotional self can set us on the path to better ways of living – and a happiness worthy of the name.’

Considering these questions doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the ingredients which contribute to our emotional well-being. To think about these we probably need to go back to the theories which I’ve discussed in earlier blogs. According to Haybron, as well as physical needs – food, clothing shelter – we also have needs as emotional beings. ‘Among the most important sources of happiness are: a sense of security, a good outlook, autonomy or control over our lives, good relationships, and skilled and meaningful activity. If you’re unhappy, then there’s a good chance that it’s for want of something on this list.’

Aha, there’s a definite sighting of a theory here – it’s the objective list idea (this blog, 20 October, 2016). I’m keen on this strategy myself, so I’m not going to disagree. If only someone could tell me how to acquire the good outlook, then I might be as happy as Larry. This simile, I discover from the internet, may have its origins in the Cornish and later Australian expression ‘happy as a larrikin’.  So give me a better outlook, and I might be as happy as a rowdy and careless young person who’s always larking about. Or possibly … as happy as someone who’s hugging a menhir on Dartmoor, which is what I’m doing in the picture above. 



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.


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.