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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.

Older, happier, and possibly wiser

20 Feb


An overview of the last three happiness surveys conducted by the Office for National Statistics has confirmed that the elderly have retained their place at the top of the UK well-being tables.

Between 2012 and 2015 data was collected from over 300,000 adults. This shows that people aged 40 to 59 are the least happy in the UK, and have the lowest levels of life satisfaction and the highest levels of anxiety. Conversely, people in the 65 to 79 age-group have the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction.

The reasons for the discrepancy are not hard to find. Middle-aged folk are mostly working, they have children who are still at school, and increasingly they also have elderly parents to care for. So they have less time, greater financial pressures, and often greater emotional upheavals to deal with as well.

Being relieved of these burdens may not be the only reason why the elderly are happier. Perhaps they’ve actually learnt a few things along the way – like valuing time more than things, and cultivating face-to-face contacts rather than succumbing to the unfeeling and relentless demands of social media. 

For the middle-aged things get worse before they get better. A low point is reached by people aged 50 to 54. But they do have something to look forward to. At 65 they will statistically be the happiest people in the country, and they will have 9 years in which to enjoy it. They’ll be 74 before the glow of these halcyon years starts to fade a little. But even if they live to be 90, they’ll still be happier than they were when they were middle-aged.

Just for the record, Northern Ireland is the happiest region in the UK, while the North-East of England is the most miserable. And overall women have higher levels of anxiety than men, but they’re also happier and more satisfied with their lives. So cutting down on stress may not be the key to happiness – we may need to put up with a bit of it in order to accomplish things that we see as worthwhile.

As for the middle-aged, ‘Get out of the house more’ is the advice offered by Paul Dolan, professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics. Put your mobiles away, go for a walk, meet your friends and listen to music. ‘If everybody did that every day, we’d be a great deal happier.’

England’s unhappy schoolkids

8 Sep


This is the most depressing of the recent happiness surveys … In August the Children’s Society annual Good Childhood  report published the findings of an international survey which shows that 10 and 12 year-olds in England are unhappier than their counterparts in almost all of the 15 countries surveyed.

The results were based on a survey of 53,000 children, aged ten and twelve, in England, Germany, Norway, South Korea, Poland, Estonia, Spain, Turkey, Romania, Algeria, South Africa, Israel, Ethiopia, Colombia, and Nepal. Overall, the study concludes that children in 13 of these countries are happier than they are in England. The only country that comes below us is South Korea.

If we break the results down into subject areas, we find that children in England are unhappier with their school life than those in almost every other country, with  more than a third (38%) of 10 and 12 year olds in England having been physically bullied in the last month, and half (50%) having felt excluded. Only Germany, South Korea and Estonia do worse than England in this category.

Matthew Read, chief executive of the Childrens Society, said, ‘It is deeply worrying that children in this country are so unhappy at school compared with other countries. School should  be a safe haven not a battleground.’

In other areas of their lives – friendships, money, possessions  – English children recorded  relatively high satisfaction.

For me the most shocking finding is that children in England were particularly dissatisfied with their appearance, with girls being most affected. Girls in England ranked bottom in terms of happiness with their body confidence, appearance and self-confidence compared to girls in every other country surveyed, with the exception of South Korea. Girls in Colombia topped the league table as being happiest with their bodies.

Girls in England were more than twice as likely as boys to say they are unhappy with their bodies (18% compared with 8%). This gender difference was not found in many other countries.

On the findings in general, Professor Jonathan Bradshaw from the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at York (which collaborated with the Children’s Society on this research) said, ‘Children are our future. Their well-being matters to us all. As a nation we pay enormous attention to the well-being of our economy, the state of the weather, sporting league tables, the City and the Stock Market. Indicators of these take up pages of the media every day. We need to make more effort to monitor the well-being of our children and we need to devote more resources to understanding how they are doing and to ensuring that their childhood is as good as it can be.’

The Children’s Society is calling for questions about how happy children feel to be included in the Department of Health’s nationwide survey into children’s mental health.

I don’t think we need to look very far to discover why girls in England worry so much about their appearance. I read a news item about the survey on the front page of The Guardian on August 19th. Taking up the whole of the back page there was an advert for perfume featuring a woman in an extremely low-slung backless frock, looking at the reader invitingly over her shoulder. Our newspapers, magazines and public spaces are stuffed with images like this one. Who could blame girls for thinking that having a desirable body is the be-all and end-all of their existence?  Our press and advertising are a national disgrace. There are, of course, far worse examples than the one offered by The Guardian.



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 …

UK happiness stats, 2013/14

2 Mar

The 2013/14 average ratings for personal well-being were published by the Office for National Statistics towards the end of last year.

  • Average life satisfaction increased by 0.06 points over the previous year, to 7.5 (out of 10).
  • The feeling that what one does in life is worthwhile was up by 0.05 points, to 7.7.
  • ‘How happy did you feel yesterday?’ scored 7.4, an increase of 0.09 points.
  • ‘How anxious did you feel yesterday?’ was down to 2.9 points, a decrease of 0.1.

The changes are small but, as the OfNS says, ‘statistically significant’. Why for some people well-being has improved, while for others austerity has meant that things are very much worse, remains a mystery, to me at least. 

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.