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Finland, Brexit, Trump … and the joys of reading

18 Apr

woman-reading-at-a-dressing-table-interieur-nice-1919In the UN’s World Happiness Report for 2019, published in March, Finland heads the field for the second year running. The UK has risen five places, from 19th to 15th – once again contradicting the view that no sane person can possibly be happy while contemplating Brexit. And the US has dropped from 18th to 19th, validating the equally entrenched conviction that Americans are bound to be getting more miserable under Donald Trump. 

The happiness report bases its rankings on six variables: income and GDP per capita; the freedom to make life choices; trust in government and perceptions of corruption; healthy life expectancy; social support; and generosity. As in previous years, the last 50 places in the list of 156 nations are mostly occupied by African and Asian countries. South Sudan, devastated by years of civil war, is at the bottom. Yemen, equally afflicted, is at 151. Eastern Europe is represented by Albania, at 107, and Ukraine, at 133. And the one South American country to appear in the last 50 is of course strife-torn Venezuela, at 108.

As usual Scandinavian countries dominate the top ten. Denmark is 2nd, Norway 3rd, and Iceland 4th. Ireland and Germany are just below the UK, at 16 and 17. And the two countries which always surprise us by being apparently less happy than Britain are still ranked lower: France is at 24 and Italy at 36. 

(For the full list, see https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2019/changing-world-happiness/). 

I’ve already rejected the notion  (this blog, 9 June 2018) that climate considerations are the mainspring of Scandinavian happiness. It still seems to me much more likely that relative prosperity and economic equality – involving high taxes and adequate safety nets provided by the state – are the key to 21st century happiness. But as Rachel Kelly points out in The Observer (24 March) money isn’t everything. The report also recognises that freedom, generosity, and support from social networks all make a difference. 

This may give rise to a belief in the possibility of personal change. Kelly is sure that individual happiness levels aren’t fixed. Her own experience of combating major depressive episodes has convinced her that we all have an ability to cultivate happiness.  She doesn’t want to rule out medication and cognitive behavioural therapy, the NHS’s main approaches to the treatment of mental illness. These do have a part to play, she says. But she also thinks that a sense of one’s own agency is very important. 

‘I have found that while thinking often makes me sad, doing rarely does. A sense of my own autonomy was essential to getting better. .. Simple daily acts such as paying proper attention when someone talks to you can transform how generous we are to others – and how happy we feel. Equally, there is much that we can do to increase our sense of social support: even light-touch socialising can boost our mood.’

Kelly’s strategies for remaining calm and well include bibliotherapy – the use of planned reading programmes to help people overcome anxiety and emotional disorders. This technique, I learn, has been employed in hospitals since the early years of the twentieth century.  It can be deeply serious. According to The Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science (https://www.abc-clio.com/ODLIS/odlis_b.aspx), Ideally, the process occurs in three phases: personal identification of the reader with a particular character in the recommended work, resulting in psychological catharsis, which leads to rational insight concerning the relevance of the solution suggested in the text to the reader’s own experience. Assistance of a trained psychotherapist is advised.’ 

For most of us, however, it may be enough just to pick up a book when we’re feeling sad or stressed, and let our engagement with a world beyond our own lead us away from anguish. Personally I find it a very effective way of  soothing the mind. And who knows? – it may even help us to cope a bit better with Brexit. 

For earlier posts on Finland and on Brexit, see 9 June 2018; and 13 and 12 January 2019, 10 October 2018, and 4 October, 2017. 

 

 

 

 

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Our duty to be grumpy

5 Feb

Christopher Kaczor’s assertion that we’re under a moral obligation to be happy really got up my nose (this blog, 1 Feb 2019). But as usual, when I explored a bit further, I had some second thoughts. Kaczor argues that our emotions have an effect on other people, so when we’re down people around us are more likely to get down as well. Everyone we meet might be a bit better off if we were only prepared to work on our individual happiness. 

This made sense to me.  Picture an evening in February. It’s pouring with rain, and I’m stumbling into Tesco’s while trying to wrestle my umbrella into a manageable shape. Someone pushes past me and snarls. I’m already feeling quite low – I’m struggling with an article I’m writing, Camden Council is digging up all the roads round our way, just getting to the shops takes quite an effort, that rude git has just knocked me out of his path – so now I definitely want to go home and shoot myself. If only the git had been kinder – if only everyone I came across were far less grumpy and whiny and selfish –  then maybe I wouldn’t right now be sinking into the existential morass …

Or vice versa, of course. If I’d been a bit more pleasant myself then perhaps the other shopper might be smiling now instead of snarling. Maybe what the world needs after all is a whole load of people who are trying their hardest to be happy … 

On reflection, I think what I want is just for people to be a bit kinder to each other, rather than being happy.  Insisting on the latter seems to me to take us into the territory of the happiness Czars, like the ones who are apparently running Pret a Manger at the moment (this blog, 1 August 2018).

Jeremy HardyI was thinking about all of this when I heard the news that Jeremy Hardy had just died, at the desperately early age of 57. Hardy wouldn’t have achieved anything if he’d concentrated on being cheerful and upbeat all of the time. Being grumpy and whiny and angry were his hallmarks as a comedian and political activist. (And God knows, there’s a lot to be angry about: I’ve just been reading about Shoshana Zuboff’s new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which tells us that the activities of the big tech companies are far far worse than we even imagined.)  But everyone who knew Hardy says that he was an extremely kind and generous man. That’s vital, it seems to me. Being kind on the personal level, and grumpy and challenging in the public arena, that’s maybe the way to go. And trying not to worry too much about being happy as well. 

As a mere listener – someone who enjoyed and profited from his wonderful political rants – I’m going to miss Jeremy Hardy enormously. 

 

Aristotle meets the Dalai Lama

1 Feb

Aristotle-Face1 Dalai Lama 2

Generally speaking, in spite of the fuss we make about its onset, January is not a month for happiness. Personally I’m not sorry it’s over. However, its early stages are often marked by discourses on the happiness theme, and one of them was provided by Mark Tully in Something Understood, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on January 6. This is the date when Christians celebrate the festival of the epiphany – meaning revelation or ‘bringing to the light’.

According to Tully the Dalai Lama (not himself a Christian, of course) believes that  the purpose of our life is to seek happiness – that the whole motion of our life is towards it. But is this a reasonable goal? Yes, the Dalai Lama replies. We can attain happiness by training our minds. Inner discipline helps us to transform our attitudes – our approach to living. We need to identify the factors in our lives that lead to happiness and those that lead to suffering, and then gradually eliminate the latter, and cultivate the former. 

Although I’m not in general a fan of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ idea, I’m really not disagreeing with any of this. I do want to be happy, and unlike some of the friends I talk to I believe that happiness is something we can work at. Some people have made the decision not to aim at happiness, and I respect them for this – it’s a reasonable and I think in some ways a moral point of view.  But most of us seek it, and this is probably a necessary thing, and possibly even a good one, provided it doesn’t lead to complacency (which I suspect is not something we can accuse the Dalai Lama of). But I do feel strongly that the pursuit of happiness is a personal endeavour – a product of the principle of individualism – and that it isn’t going to change the world. As a species we might even be better off without it. 

One reason why I’m inclined to favour the Dalai Lama’s views is that they seem to be quite close to those of Aristotle, although I do find Aristotle a bit more convincing. In the Nicomachean Ethics the philosopher argues that what distinguishes us humans from other animals is that we have a rational soul: our capacity to guide ourselves by using reason is our distinguishing feature – our ‘telos’ or end. So if we use our reason well, we are living well as human beings, and this is what our happiness (our ‘eudaimonia’) consists of.  Living well means doing something, not just being in a particular condition – it means pursuing those lifelong activities which will satisfy the rational part of our being. But Aristotle also makes it clear that in order to be happy we need other things as well – such as friends, money, and political power –  because our capacity to live in accordance with reason will be diminished if we lack these advantages.

“This gives rise to the question, can happiness be learnt, or acquired by training? … or is it bestowed by some divine dispensation or even by fortune?  Well, if anything that humans have is a gift from the gods, it is reasonable to suppose that happiness is divinely given … Still, even if happiness isn’t sent to us from heaven, but is gained by virtue and by some kind of study or practice, it does nevertheless seem to be one of the most divine things that exists.”    

(Nicomachean Ethics 1097b-1099b ). 

Does this mean that we also have a duty to be happy, as one of Tully’s other contributors – theologian Christopher Kaczor – was arguing? I’m afraid that it might, but for the time being I’m resisting the idea.  When you’re feeling depressed, the last thing you need is someone standing over you, saying, ‘Come on, snap out of it! You’re under a moral obligation to be happy, don’t you realise that?’ This approach, I find, isn’t remotely helpful. 

 

What is thinking for?

15 Oct

A footnote to my last blog: I realise that reading doesn’t always lead to thinking, nor should it. Just after I’d posted my blog I heard a discussion on the Radio 4 arts review programme Front Row (10 October – World Mental Health Day) about the part reading novels can play in combating depression.  For this exercise you need to choose novels which aren’t too taxing. Marian Keyes, herself a novelist, favoured Margery Allingham, while the presenter Stig Abbell was an enthusiastic champion of P.G. Wodehouse. ‘I never go anywhere without a book,’ Keyes told us – she refers to it as her ‘emergency novel’. Once she’s feeling a bit better then she can move on to something more challenging. Continue reading

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.