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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. 

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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

Living intensely

10 Oct

‘When was the last time you did something for the first time?’ the American singer Darius Rucker asks us.  I’d like to reply, ‘Well yesterday I read a new review of a new book, The Life Intense: a Modern Obsession, by Tristan Garcia. Does that count?’ 

bungy jumping

Most people, I suspect, would say, ‘No.’  Reading isn’t actually doing anything, is it?  A few years ago, after a pleasant lunch in a King’s Cross pub, I was preparing to toddle back to my researches. ‘You’re going to drop dead one day in the British Library,’ my friend Richard commented. Just for a moment I thought he was conjuring up for me a vision of the ideal demise. Then I realised he was having a go at me – telling me that I wasn’t living life to the full. This, as far as he was concerned, involved three hour lunches, laughter, and another glass of red wine.  Lovely in its way – meeting up with friends has always been one of my greatest pleasures.  Still, I don’t want to spend all of my time doing it. And keeling over in the British Library still feels like my idea of a Good Death – provided it doesn’t happen for a while yet.

But a lifetime of reading probably doesn’t constitute most people’s image of a life lived to the full. In his review of The Life Intense (The Observer, 23 September 2018) Tim Adam refers to Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock, in which they predict that once society has met most people’s basic needs and provided them with a certain level of comfort, the economy will be increasingly directed, in the absence of organised religion, toward ‘psychic gratification’. In Chapter 10 ,’The Experience Makers’, they argue that manufacturers of goods will be striving to add a ‘psychic load’ to basic products (you’re not just drinking a cup of coffee, you’re doing an imaginary whirlwind circuit of Rome on a Vespa), and that we’ll see the emergence of ‘experience industries’ aimed at supplying us with a taste of adventure … danger … sexual thrills.  Anything to create the illusion that we’re really living. 

In his new book, Tristan Garcia maintains that the quality underpinning this culture and economy is the desire for intensity.  Desperate to escape from routine and mundanity,  we go racing after novel sensations and pastimes. ‘Status is increasingly measured not by what we earn, or what we contribute, but what we experience … The idea of intensity, of living to the limit, has become another way to fill the God-shaped hole, to prove to ourselves that we are fully alive.’  Garcia traces this yearning back to the Enlightenment, which reduced our world to gravity and atoms, and to the subsequent backlash against scientific rationalism during the Romantic Age, when feeling and sensation, wonder and awe, became the watchwords of a full-blooded existence.  Sensibility was taking over from sense. 

Reviewer Tim Adams thinks that the present-day craving for intensity may also be infecting our politics. ‘The electorate … is drawn to the purity of extremes rather than the pragmatism of compromise.’ Votes for Trump and for Brexit – the urge to rip up the rule book – are just two of the results. 

According to Garcia, we’re missing a lot if we continually go chasing after intense experiences. We’re missing out on subtlety, self-questioning, reflection.  This, for me, is an endorsement of a life spent reading.  Thinking, trying to understand,  are surely more sustainable as activities – both personally and environmentally – than the quest for novel sensations. Novelty, after all, is a word that can also be used to mean frippery and trivia.  And nothing under the sun would ever have induced me to take up bungee-jumping.

This, I think, is my cue to return to the British Library.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FOMO and the looking-glass

3 Sep

FOMOThinking about mirror neurons – the cells that make us want what others want – led me to consider the form of anxiety known as FOMO. This has been defined as ‘a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent’ (Przybylski, Murayama, DeHaan, and Gladwell, ‘Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out’,  Computers in Human Behavior 29: 1841–1848.).  FOMO produces a desperate need to stay in touch with what the people around us are experiencing, be it a party (‘Why wasn’t I invited?), a film, a holiday activity, or a whole lifestyle.

The term was invented in the late 1990s in the world of business studies, and its close cousin is FOBO, or the fear of better options – the phenomenon I refer to myself as ‘the conviction that other queues at the supermarket always move more quickly than mine’. Both FOMO and FOBO are increasingly fuelled, needless to say, by our engagement with social media. They’re the reason we try (and fail) to handle two or three media at the same time – watching the telly while texting while reading our emails, for instance. 

The supermarket queue is a pertinent example as far as I’m concerned, because my own FOBO is closely linked to a frantic desire to save time, the flip-side of the horror I experience when I realise that I’ve made a bad decision about how to use my time. This is why I get very agitated when, for example, I find myself sitting in a cinema watching a rubbish film. I seem to imagine that during these precious two hours I could be writing a masterpiece, or at any rate composing an entry for my happiness blog.

So in my case FOWT – fear of wasting time – could be added to the list of anxieties. This hang-up wouldn’t arise if we lived forever, of course. We’d have plenty of time for everything. But I’m probably not the only person who would never even bother getting out of bed if I wasn’t operating under strict time constraints. So immortality isn’t really very desirable – which is just as well.

The Greeks had a number of myths that hammered home this message. One was about Eos, the goddess of the dawn, who fell in love with a beautiful mortal youth named Tithonus.  When she begged Zeus, the ruler of the gods, to grant her a wish and make her sweetheart immortal, she forgot to add the supplementary request for eternal youth. Tithonus did indeed live forever, but he also grew older and older, till eventually, when ‘he could not move nor lift his limbs, this seemed to her in her heart the best counsel: she laid him in a room and locked the shining doors. There he babbles endlessly, and has no more strength at all …’ (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 5.235). 

A similar fate befell Sibylla, a young virgin who promised the god Apollo that she’d sleep with him – at this point she dug her hands into the  beach she was sitting on – if he let her live as many years as the number of grains of sand she held in her hands. But Sibylla was a cock-teaser. At the last minute she changed her mind, and pushed Apollo out of bed. The god granted her wish, but he failed to point out that without eternal youth it might not prove a very happy outcome. Do be careful what you wish for. Sibylla became a prophetess at the shrine of Apollo at Cumae, near Naples. Before long she was a tiny bent old lady, and when petitioners visited her and asked her what she wanted, she cried in reply, ‘Apothanein thelo’ – ‘I want to die!’

Which just goes to show … being mortal is important if we want to enjoy a meaningful and fulfilling life. FOMO, FOBO and FOWT are the unfortunate but controllable by-products of the transience which defines our human existence. 

Happiness through the looking-glass

20 Aug

Here’s another interesting fact I gleaned from Leo Johnson’s ‘Hacking Happiness’ series:  our brains, according to Italian neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, contain a small circuit ofmirror cells called mirror neurons.  These are activated when we perform particular actions – such as smiling or shouting  or when we observe other people performing the same actions.  Mirror neurons wire us up to want what other people want.  Your friend smiles, you smile. In this way we develop what are termed mimetic desires: we don’t want things because they give us simple pleasure, but because lots of other people seem to find them desirable.  This, Iacoboni says, becomes a mighty force when it operates in the realm of social media.

I can well believe this. Mirror neurons help to explain a number of familiar responses. Such as why a few years ago I was willing to queue for five hours to see a play which I was only mildly interested in until I discovered that all the tickets were sold and people were talking about it … or  why everyone throngs to the same beaches … or why individuals get so fired up when they come together in crowds.

The lesson for happiness-pursuers, I suppose, is that it’s always a good idea to closely examine our desires and try to decide what we really really want – as Epicurus nearly said.

What we really want is not always fathomable, of course. The play I queued five hours to see was pretty good, but it was impossible for me to judge it rationally, because it would have had to be bloody brilliant to justify sitting for that long on the stairs at the Royal Court theatre. On the other hand, I did meet someone in the queue who became a friend. I learned something worth knowing  too – that well-off people send their au pairs and cleaners to queue for return tickets, which is one of the reasons why this system is so unfair. And above all the experience was worthwhile because it satisfied one of my deeply rooted Protestant principles: I suffered, and eventually I was rewarded.

Scandinavian happiness: never mind the cold, feel the equality

9 Jun

Over the last year there’s been a jostling for Finland winter 2position among the front-runners in the international happiness stakes. According to the 2018 World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations, the first four places are still occupied by Scandinavian countries. But Finland has edged into the lead, pushing Norway – last year’s winner – into second place. The third slot goes to Denmark, while Iceland is fourth. Elsewhere, the US has slipped to number 18, while the position of the UK remains unchanged at 19, behind Australia (10) and Germany (15), but ahead of France (23), Italy (47), and Greece (79).

The bottom of the table is still dominated by Asian and African countries. They occupy all but four of the last 50 places, out of a total of 156, joined only by Albania, Ukraine, Georgia and Haiti. Syria, unsurprisingly, comes in at no.150, while India is at 133. China, at 79, and Pakistan, at 80, seem to be doing much better than their democratic neighbour.

Overall, these figures suggest that there may be something very first world about the values being tested in happiness surveys; or alternatively – and more straightforwardly – that a certain level of material comfort is vital for happiness.  The latter conclusion seems plausible. The key variables being examined in the report, compiled by the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, are income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity. The first three, at least, are probably not compatible with high levels of poverty.

But there again, money isn’t everything. Gross Domestic Product per capita in Finland is lower than in other Scandinavian countries, and much lower than that of the US. And Finland has only recently emerged from a 10-year economic depression, linked to the collapse of its signature company Nokia and made worse by the 2008 financial crisis.

Things have picked up recently, thanks to the success of other tech companies such as the games studio Supercell. And Nokia has by no means disappeared: it’s still Finland’s largest employer, followed by escalator manufacturer Kone. The economy is in reasonable shape, then; but it hasn’t recovered from the 2008 debacle as quickly as the UK and US economies (see The Observer 18 March, Business Leader). So why are the Finns apparently much happier than the Brits and Americans?

It’s the equality, most commentators would argue. Finland has a state education system that caters for all its children without the need for selective or private schooling. The health service and welfare programme remain for the time being universal. And taxes are seen in Finland as an investment in quality of life, not as a crime against humanity.

The picture isn’t completely rosy, however. As in other countries, the economic depression in Finland saw a rise in support for far-right views. The party which dubs itself True Finns has recently elected an anti-immigrant hardliner as its leader. And the country has one of the most rapidly ageing populations in Europe, which has prompted the conservatives who control the coalition government to embark on a series of healthcare cuts. In the future some Finns may feel the need to resort to private medicine.  And this may mean that Finland doesn’t retain its position at the top of the happiness table.

But at the moment Finland doesn’t just have the happiest population in the world, it also has the happiest immigrants. For the first time the UN report examined the happiness levels of immigrants in each country, and Finland got the top score here as well. In fact, the ten happiest countries in the overall rankings also occupied ten of the top eleven spots in the ranking of immigrant happiness. Which suggests that happiness isn’t bound up with our genetic and cultural inheritance, but rather with the quality of life we enjoy in the country where we’re living.

Or maybe it’s the cold. Some pundits have suggested that Scandinavians always do well in happiness surveys because their climate has made them more resilient and more neighbourly. To combat harsh conditions they’re forced to come together and help each other. This spirit of co-operation feeds into the national psyche and so into state policies.

I’m inclined to think that such climatic determinism is nonsense. Sunshine rather than snow is usually credited with being the fount of all happiness, and speaking for myself I know that my mood lightens instantaneously when the sun comes out. But it’s clearly not crucial. Italy, which for a lot of British people is the very image of a carefree sun-kissed nation, always comes low down among European countries in the happiness tables. Many of the Italians I talk to personally moan a lot about their lives and their prospects. Not so the Finns, Danes and Norwegians. It could be the cold that makes them upbeat, I suppose – but it seems much more likely that equality is the really important factor when it comes to Scandinavian happiness.

More and more satisfied … unless you’re in Wolverhampton

4 Oct

 

uk happinessThe UK’s Office for National Statistics has just published the well-being figures for  April 2016/March 2017, based on responses to the ‘life-satisfaction’ and ‘happy or anxious?’ questions I’ve been discussing in recent blogs. Life satisfaction, we’re told, is at its highest level since 2011, when the questions were first included in the Integrated Household Survey. It’s gone up to 7.7 out of 10, compared with 7.6 in the previous year.

So during a period when the UK began grappling with the fallout from the 2016 Brexit vote, people apparently felt more rather than less satisfied with their lives. They were also a little bit happier. Scores under this heading had levelled off between 2015 and 2016 – having risen steadily in earlier years – but now they’re up from 7.48 to 7.51. We’re apparently just as anxious as we were in the previous year, however  – the average rating here was 2.9 out of 10. And  we’re no more inclined to view what we do in our lives as worthwhile: here the score remains static at 7.9.      UKMap

Many of us feel that we’ve being going through a good deal of political uncertainty recently. But the ONS points out that in spite of this, employment rates rose during the period covered by the report, and in other surveys respondents have reported an improvement in their financial situations. This could be the reason for the increased sense of life satisfaction.

As usual the media are fascinated by the regional variations in these survey results. Of all the countries making up the UK, Northern Ireland, as in previous years, recorded the best average ratings across all four measures. And when you get down to local authority districts, Craven in the Yorkshire Dales emerged as the happiest area in Britain, and also had the highest levels of life satisfaction and the lowest anxiety levels. Wolverhampton, sadly, remained the least satisfied of all our districts.