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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. 

 

 

 

 

When we’re 64

2 Mar

Men and women in the UK are still officially at their happiest when they reach the fabled age of 70 – and from 64 onward they’re gradually building up to it. A study of the Office for National Statistics’ wellbeing data for the years 2010-17 (the entire input since the surveys began) has confirmed what the individual annual reports have already indicated (see this blog, Feb 2016 ): it’s worth hanging in there till you’re in your late 60s, because for most people life gets so much better then.  With any luck the kids have left home,  you’re probably working fewer hours,  you need less money, and you may even have learnt a thing or two about how to live. 

old lady southwark

David Cameron, when he introduced the happiness surveys in 2010, remarked, ‘There’s more to life than money. It’s time we focussed not just on GDP but on GWB – general wellbeing.’

Easy to say that, of course, when you’re so wealthy you can afford to shell out for a glorified shed a sum (£25,000) which exceeds many people’s annual income. George Bangham – a policy analyst with the Resolution Foundation, the thinktank which carried out the study – provides a useful corrective. The quest for wellbeing, he says, ‘should complement, rather than replace, priorities such as income redistribution, better jobs and secure housing. The data shows that there’s more to life than a country’s GDP, but that the employment and income trends that lie behind our economy can make a big difference to our wellbeing too.’  (Guardian, 13 Feb 2019)

OR as Aristotle told us over two thousand years ago (this blog, February 2019), ‘flourishing’, or eudaimonia, requires an effort of the human will –  and it isn’t necessarily easy to achieve it if you haven’t got sufficient money or power. 

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. 

 

Brexit … and happiness

13 Jan

dominic-cummings-benedict-cumberbatch-brexit

I’ve never wanted to use this blog as a repository for banal ‘oh and here’s another thing that makes me happy’ observations. And I certainly wouldn’t want, God forbid, to suggest that Brexit is an issue that has made me happy. But one thing the current furor has managed to achieve is a 1000-fold increase in my interest in political debate and – mirabile dictu – parliamentary procedure.

And to break my blog-rule just this once, as an ingredient for my personal happiness there’s nothing to beat a good drama. James Graham is one of my favourite playwrights, and his piece Brexit – the Uncivil War, which aired last Monday on Channel 4, was very good. It featured Benedict Cumberbatch (above right) as Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of Vote Leave (above left). 

I have many thoughts about the extent to which it’s permissible to tinker with history in a political play (remembering here that everything that happened up to about five minutes ago is history). I won’t go into that now, but I tend to be quite hard line: if you want to alter the facts, then why don’t you just invent your own bloody story instead of filching one from history? But a bit of information gleaned from a review of the Graham play has made me think again. Perhaps every political play should be allowed one completely made-up meeting between important characters. In Schiller’s Mary Stuart it’s a meeting between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots that never happened. Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon has, not exactly a meeting, but a late-night phone-call in which Richard Nixon admits his guilt to David Frost. And in Brexit – the Uncivil War a climactic encounter in a pub between Cummings and the spin doctor and Remain campaigner Craig Oliver is, I now learn, entirely fictional. 

Just one, mind. That’s my maximum. I’ve already broken two of my rules in this blog, and the rot has to stop somewhere. 

Happy old year

12 Jan

2019 is well under way, and it’s high time I reported on the UK happiness stats for April 2017 to March 2018, which were published last September by the Office of National Statistics. There’s nothing to get hugely excited about, however. The averages remain the same as the ones for 2017/16. ‘How happy yesterday?’ stays at 7.5, ‘how anxious’ is at 2.9, life satisfaction 7.7 and ‘things you do in your life worthwhile’ is at 7.9.

Northern Ireland remains the happiest of the countries making up the UK, in spite of having no sitting parliament and being in the front line of political skirmishing for quite some time now. And Rushmoor in Hampshire has overtaken Craven in North Yorkshire as our happiest district – ialdershot buddhist centrets ‘happy yesterday?’ rating shot up from 7.8 to 8.4. One of the towns in the Rushmoor district is Aldershot, which has a large training camp on its fringes and advertises itself as ‘the Home of the British Army’. It seems laughable to some of us that  it should be the happiest town in Britain, but that’s just prejudice – I have to admit that I’ve never actually been there. It’s an affluent area, and that probably helps. But more intriguing is the information that Aldershot has the largest Nepalese population and the largest Buddhist community in the UK. Surely that in itself contributes to its happiness quotient?

So … by the end of March 2018 our Brexit woes Aldershotmilitarytown.jpghadn’t apparently had any impact at all on our happiness scores. We do have to bear in mind of course that the majority of people in the UK voted in favour of Brexit, so by no means everyone is pissed off by it (something that we Remainers are often inclined to forget – democracy is OK as long as it’s going your way). Still, a lot has happened in the last nine months, so we’ll just have to wait to see what the crop of statistics for 2019 yields. 

More stuff on stuff

9 Nov

The debate about whether stuff can make you happy has been intensified recently by the latest terrifying predictions on climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by almost fifty percent by 2030  if we’re to avert global environmental catastrophe, including the loss of every single coral reef, the disappearance of  Arctic ice, and the destruction of small island states (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report)

People of my generation have got used to thinking (guiltily) that this level of catastrophe isn’t going to happen in our lifetimes.  But if we’ve only got twelve years, then it’s quite possible that it will. 

not buying clothesThe slightly-less-than- appalling news is that we can all do a bit to try to make things better.  Eat less meat, drive our cars less, insulate our homes.  Rather more challenging from my point of view is the advice sent in by one Guardian reader:  never buy anything new until the old one breaks, including clothes. 

My clothes hardly ever break. And I’ve certainly got more than enough to last me the rest of my life. Does that mean I can’t buy any more, ever?  Not a happy thought as far as I’m concerned.