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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 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 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 am 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. At the last minute Sibylla changed her mind, and pushed Apollo out of bed. So he granted her wish but failed to point out that without eternal youth it might be a mixed blessing. Sibylla became a prophetess at the shrine of Apollo at Cumae, near Naples. 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’re 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. 

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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.

Are we pursuing happiness … or is happiness pursuing us?

1 Aug

More specifically – in the words of Leo Johnson – is the happiness industry pursuing us?

Johnson’s series ‘Hacking happiness’ (BBC radio 4, July 16-20) is one the best explorations of happiness issues I’ve come across recently. A central theme of the first programme was the corporate happiness agenda. Companies are now appointing CHO’s, or Chief Happiness Officers, Johnson tells us. The idea is to make workers happy, not because happiness is a desirable end in itself, but because it’s a good way of boosting productivity. People will work harder if they’re happy.

This agenda sounds pretty sinister, and I think Johnson is right to be sceptical about its objectives. But I wouldn’t want to go overboard in condemning it. We could just as easily point out that people will work harder if they get higher pay and longer holidays: should we therefore condemn these measures as part of a capitalist plot to grind the faces of the workers and exploit them all the more thoroughly?  If trying to make employees happy is part of an overall package that includes decent pay and better employment rights, then I’m certainly not going to argue against it. 

eating a sandwich in the street

 Much more sinister, in my view, is the appalling pressure which is sometimes placed on workers to assume the appearance of happiness, as a way of pleasing their customers. This doesn’t just involve training them to smile inanely and cry, ‘No problem!’ and ‘Enjoy the rest of your day!’ at every available opportunity. The sandwich company Pret a Manger, for example, seems to be notorious for insisting that its workers have a sense of fun, and for giving them the push or docking their wages if they display ‘latent sadness.’ This while paying them, needless to say, rather less than the living wage (Wikipedia, ‘Pret a Manger’).

Oh for the happy days of yesteryear, when diners used to flock to the German restaurant Schmidt’s on London’s Charlotte Street, just for the privilege of being insulted by its surly waiters. Sadly, waiters and waitresses nowadays are compelled to work their socks off for very little money AND be nice to the customers while doing it. It’s one of the joys of living in a service economy.

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.

Are we addicted to pleasure?

11 Sep

no-sugar-lustig

It looks very much like it, at least in Britain and the US. According to Robert Lustig, in an article which appeared in yesterday’s Observer, addiction is very much on the increase.  Heroin use in particular has sky-rocketed: although the UK has only 8% of Europe’s population, a third of all European overdoses happen in this country.  Overall death rates are also rising, for the first time in over 20 years. At the same time the incidence of depression has more than doubled. In the UK prescriptions for anti-depressants have gone up by 108% in the last ten years.

Lustig, an American endocrinologist and anti-sugar campaigner, thinks that these phenomena are linked. The things unhappy people do in order to feel better – smoke, drink, take drugs and eat sweet stuff – are killing them. 

 “What’s the connection?” asks Lustig. “Elementary, my dear Watson. Too much dopamine and not enough serotonin, the neurotransmitters of the brain’s “pleasure” and “happiness” pathways, respectively. Despite what the telly and social media say, pleasure and happiness are not the same thing. Dopamine is the “reward” neurotransmitter that tells our brains: “This feels good, I want more.” Yet too much dopamine leads to addiction. Serotonin is the “contentment” neurotransmitter that tells our brains: “This feels good. I have enough. I don’t want or need any more … Chronic dopamine from your favourite ‘fix’ reduces serotonin and happiness.”

In our society sugar, tobacco, alcohol, pornography and even drugs are all tolerated. The use of social media – which in itself is addictive, and can lead to cyberbullying – is positively encouraged. Combine this with constant stress, the product of the pressure both to spend and to achieve, and the result is an “unprecedented epidemic of addiction, anxiety, depression and chronic disease.” It’s a vicious cycle. “The more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get and the more likelihood you will slide into addiction or depression.”

I can only assume that Lustig is right about the science of pleasure versus ‘happiness’. And it’s interesting that his conclusions mirror more speculative ideas about the limits of hedonism and of desire-satisfaction.  It’s a grim picture he’s painting, although we can perhaps comfort ourselves with the thought that withdrawing from the ceaseless round of pleasure-seeking may well make us feel a bit better.  

But that may be quite difficult. “Our ability to perceive happiness has been sabotaged by our modern incessant quest for pleasure, which our consumer culture has made all too easy to satisfy. Those who abdicate happiness for pleasure will end up with neither. Go ahead, pick your drug or device. Pick your poison. Your brain can’t tell the difference. But please be advised – it will kill you sooner or later, one way or another.”

 

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 annual population survey, are a kind of thermometer employed by the ONS 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 ONS 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 ONS 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 ONS 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.