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Fear and trembling in Copenhagen

27 Sep


Anxiety can be fearfully isolating. At its worst it’s a form of madness, cutting us off from all the seemingly normal people around us. ‘Oh I’m not a worrier’ … ‘What me, worry?’ … ‘No worries’.  Badges of honour flaunted by the superficially well-adjusted.

Some of these jaunty souls may be only pretending. Some may be ‘well-dissemblers of their woes’, like the friends of the young nobleman Amintor in Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy. If so, they’d be doing everyone a favour if they occasionally came clean and admitted to the odd passing anxiety. ‘Would I knew it, for the rareness/Afflicts me now,’ the woebegone Amintor declares. It’s a cliché, but knowing we’re not alone can be enormously reassuring.

Confessing to anxiety might be good for the sufferer too, in more ways than one. Three years after the event, an acquaintance of mine who hails from Seattle still seems to feel the need to explain why he didn’t go home for his father’s funeral. ‘I’d seen him just a few months before,’ he insists, ‘what was the point of flying all that way when the old guy was already dead?’ A few days ago, facing the prospect of a trip to Australia, he confided in a whisper that he has a flying phobia. We’d probably all have thought better of him – including the sister who’s never spoken to him since – if he’d admitted to this a long time ago.

For those of us who worry about worrying, it’s comforting to be told by the nineteenth century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard that everybody experiences anxiety and despair. ‘Just as a doctor might say that there probably isn’t a single human being who is completely healthy, so anyone who really knows humanity might say that there isn’t a single human who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbour an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something, or something that he does not dare to try to know.’ (The Sickness unto Death).

Kierkegaard can’t be accused of celebrating misery. But he did embrace the phenomenon as a necessary and inevitable part of the human condition. In the words of Clare Carlise, author of a new biography of Kierkegaard (Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard, April 2019), ‘he believed that true peace and joy come from the depths of the human heart, which can be reached only by contending with life’s uncertainties’ (‘Is anxiety what makes us human? Why Kierkegaard is still relevant today,’ Prospect Magazine, April 2019; The ‘nameless dread’ identified by Wilfred Bion (this blog, 12 November 2018) is probably felt at some point by most of humanity. According to Kierkegaard, we shouldn’t rush away from it, but accept and acknowledge it.

Kierkegaard spent most of his life in Copenhagen, a city which he believed to be steeped in spiritual complacency. His Danish compatriots were apparently not good at admitting to anxiety or despair. Instead, they buried these emotions beneath a heap of material and social distractions. ‘I’m far too busy – or far too rich – to be worried’. Clare Carlisle suggests that this may be the reason why the Danes are so obsessed with the concept of hygge (this blog, 10 September 2016), or ‘being cosy and nice’.

If we add together all the pleasurable moments we experience, Kierkegaard tells us, we won’t end up with a life of enduring satisfaction. Rather, it will be a life of endless distractions. Anxiety will out, it will seep in through the cracks. A prolific writer, Kierkegaard dissects this topic in some of his best-known works, including Fear and Trembling and Repetition. On 1st August 1835 he wrote in his journal:

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die….Not until a man has inwardly understood himself and then sees the course he is to take does his life gain peace and meaning; only then is he free of that irksome, sinister travelling companion — that irony of life, which manifests itself in the sphere of knowledge and invites true knowing to begin with a not-knowing (Socrates) just as God created the world from nothing.

Understandably, he is often regarded as a precursor of modern existentialism; his writings influenced later twentieth century philosophers such as Heidegger, Sartre and above all Camus.

If anxiety is the converse of happiness – as two of the well-being questions asked by the Office for National Statistics imply (‘How happy did you feel yesterday?’ and ‘How anxious did you feel yesterday?’) –  then anxiety is an important issue for anyone who is interested in being happy. It’s certainly important for me … so in future blogs I’m going to be exploring in a little more detail the thinking of the nineteenth century philosopher who put worry at the forefront of his explorations of the human psyche.

Say NEJ to positive thinking?

1 Mar


Bucking the current trend for candle-lit cosiness, the Danish psychology professor Svend Brinkmann  has written a book called  Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, which rubbishes the whole business of  looking on the bright side.  Positive thinking, Brinkmann argues, is a maudlin distraction from the important things in life.  Rather like Oliver Burkeman (this blog, 29 Nov 2016), he maintains that  instead we should  be facing  up to the negative.

Last week, Radio 4’s Today programme pitted Prof Brinkmann against  Anthony Seldon, one of the pioneers of happiness teaching in this country.

These days, we’re not allowed to be unhappy, Brinkmann said. This is nonsense. We need  to understand the negative things in our world,  not cloud them in a sugar-coating of positive thinking. Nietzsche, he told us, maintained that  ‘man does not strive for happiness, only the Englishman does that’. This came as a surprise to me, and to the show’s presenter John Humphreys; but apparently Nietzsche was offering here a critique of the British philosophy of utilitarianism.  (I looked it up later: Nietzsche said this in The Twilight of the Idols). According  to Brinkmann, positive thinking is an ideology which grew out of an individualistic society, and it should  be resisted. People craving self-improvement are bound to fail, and then they will feel worse.

Seldon at first appeared to agree with him. An obsession with the positive can infantilise us and waft us away into la-la land, he said. But true positive psychology, rather than infantilising us, teaches us to cope with the terrible things that we’re almost certain  to encounter in life. He compared the traditional approach to therapy  with a waterfall: generally we wait till someone hits the bottom before we attempt to deal with the problem. By contrast positive psychology is  about prevention – about building the capacity to face adversity.

In the end there wasn’t that much disagreement between these two. Brinkmann  said he wasn’t really worried about positive psychology, but about the people who implement it  – about the coaches, team-leaders etc, who compel us to be upbeat all of the time. The defining mood of our age – if you’re unhappy you’re a loser – does not allow us to focus on the negative aspects of life.

But good positive  psychology, Seldon countered, tells us to embrace the real.

I like and respect Brinkmann’s  enthusiastic acceptance of the negative. But I also find it hard to disagree with Seldon. In the end it probably comes down to emphasis. We need to steer clear of the idea that everything in the world’s garden is simply lovely – it isn’t. To believe that we can think ourselves into being wonderfully fulfilled all of the time is also clearly idiotic. Ditto, the belief that every single person on the planet can be similarly happy and fulfilled, if only he or she tries hard enough.

But at the same time, we do surely have to try to steer people away from the pits of despair  into which it is so easy to fall. Mental health problems are not a joke, and if positive psychology can help some people survive them, I’m not inclined to argue against it. As long, that is, as it doesn’t blind us to all the real suffering that goes on around us, day in, day out. 

The Danes, again …

10 Sep

Consistent frontrunners in the happiness league tables, the Danes are happy-danish-personensuring that their state of mind stays in the news. Personally, I think I’ve heard quite enough already about ‘hygge’, but it seems that five books on the subject are to be published in English in the next few weeks (The Observer, Sept 4). ‘Hygge’ means something like ‘doing inexpensive and pleasurable things with nice people in snug surroundings,’ and you can’t really knock it. We all like a bit of that from time to time. But is it what we should be striving to achieve?

When reading about ‘hygge’ I immediately think of Chekvov, who would have found all this bourgeois contentment disturbing. “These days,” one of his characters tells us, “I am afraid to look into windows, because there is now no sadder spectacle for me than a happy family seated round a tea-table.” (Gooseberries)  ‘Hygge’ is not for Chekhov, then. The narrator in his story fears that he is lapsing into contentment himself, but he also believes that those who are happy are only in a position to enjoy their mental state because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence. (See this blog, 28 july 2013)

My sense that ‘hygge’ is not the solution is confirmed when I read in The Observer article that “it is rarely hygge to talk about politics, or indeed anything controversial.” So how on earth is anything ever going to change, then?  Or is the world of hygge so perfect that it doesn’t need to change? Perfect, that is, for those who belong to it. 


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 …

Genetics and happiness

11 Feb

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           Daniel Kahneman’s comment that a propensity for happiness is in part genetically determined came as a surprise to me (see this blog, October 9th 2013). Many of us are deeply disturbed by the notion of genetic determinism, with its abhorrent whiff of eugenics and racial stereotyping. But if our physical make-up really does influence our behaviour and responses – and who could deny that on some levels this has to be true? – then maybe coming to terms with the idea is preferable to trying to ignore it.  I’ve recently read about studies suggesting that in some cases depression may be associated with decreases in the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is believed to be linked to human mood; and that this area of vulnerability may be hereditary (see, for example, If this is correct, then to me it makes absolute sense that the converse may be true, and our ability to experience happiness may also be to some extent genetic.

          Tentative support for this conclusion has been provided by research carried out by Eugenio Proto and Andrew Oswald (photos above), published in July 2014 (‘National happiness and genetic distance, a cautious exploration’, CAGE Centre and Dept. of Economics, University of Warwick; available online at Their study took as its starting point one of the famous puzzles of social science: why do some rich nations such as Denmark consistently achieve high scores in the happiness tables, while others, like France and Italy, do quite badly? These rankings still hold good even when adjustments are made for socio-economic and cultural variables. In their search for possible explanations, Proto and Oswald have been examining the hypothesis that some nations have an in-built genetic advantage when it comes to happiness. Their findings, they stress, are provisional.

          Proto and Oswald employed three forms of evidence in their study. Firstly they used data on 131 countries derived from a number of international surveys, in order to compare ‘genetic distance’ and well-being.  “The results were surprising,” says Dr.Proto. “We found that the greater a nation’s genetic distance from Denmark, the lower the reported wellbeing of that nation. Our research adjusts for many other influences including Gross Domestic Product, culture, religion, the strength of the welfare state, and geography.”

          The second form of evidence used by Proto and Oswald was research which points to an association between mental wellbeing and a mutation of the gene influencing the reuptake of serotonin. Dr.Proto comments, “We looked at existing research which suggests that the long and short variants of this gene are correlated with different probabilities of clinical depression, although this link is still highly debated. The short version has been associated with higher scores on neuroticism and lower life satisfaction. Intriguingly, among the 30 nations included in our study, it is Denmark and the Netherlands that appear to have the lowest percentage of people with this short version.” Basically, the closer you are to the long version of the gene prevalent in Denmark and the Netherlands, the more likely you are to report life satisfaction.

          Their third form of evidence addresses the question of whether the link between genetics and happiness also holds true across generations, continents and the Atlantic Ocean. Professor Oswald explains, “We used data on the reported wellbeing of Americans, and then looked at which part of the world their ancestors had come from. The evidence revealed that there is an unexplained positive correlation between the happiness today of some nations and the observed happiness of Americans whose ancestors came from these nations, even after controlling for personal income and religion.”  He adds, “This study has used three kinds of evidence and, contrary to our own assumptions when we began the project, it seems there are reasons to believe that genetic patterns may help researchers to understand international wellbeing levels.  More research in this area is now needed, and economists and social scientists may have to pay greater heed to the role of genetic variation across national populations.”

          Do these findings strike you as compelling, scary, or just plain ridiculous?  I tend to the first view, while accepting that there is still a long way to go on the research. I take heart from the belief that we may eventually come to understand some of the causes of unhappiness, both physical and cultural. Without understanding, we will never be able to tackle them. And the conclusions of Proto and Oswald should  certainly not be seen as threatening. Equality and social justice have never, in my opinion, been ideals that should apply only to those who are best equipped to fight for them. If people have a predisposition towards unhappiness, that shouldn’t lead us to dismiss them as hopeless cases. On the contrary, it should  make us even more determined to find ways of combating their misery and distress, whatever its causes.