May 21, 2013
Medals for happiness
It may not deliver us to the sanctum of scientific truth, but then again, when did a Higgs-Boson particle ever put a smile on anyone’s face? Here and there, in Britain, Germany or Brazil, a lively school of thought and inquiry has begun to ask what makes up happy, and whether, once we look at the numerical data, growing rich and living long will prove to have been a complete waste of time. Amongst other things, the research has made the fascinating discovery of Britain’s saddest town: Middlesbrough, a post-industrial scape, once described by a writer as having skies “the colour of a deep bruise.”
In Middlesbrough, alas, anxiety stands at 3.6 (out of ten). British satisfaction as a whole, as recorded in the recent Experimental Subjective Well-being study — the first official report of its kind in the isles — attains the laudable heights of 7.4. The average Briton is thus probably feeling all right, though not in the rippling throes of uninterrupted delight: perhaps the kitchen sink is blocked, or maybe the cat is throwing up.
Now, almost as soon as government-paid researchers were dispatched by Prime David Cameron in 2010 to measure and annotate how 165,000 of their compatriots feel deep, deep inside, it became clear that the country and its eurozone neighbours were in the grip of a systemic economic crisis. Logic would say the resulting proliferation of unemployment, insecurity, family break-up and dashed expectations, all of them strongly correlated with unhappiness, would terminate Britain’s honeymoon period of nearly eight out of ten.
It is too soon for these effects on the inner-me to be calibrated. But here is where the quest for scientifically robust measurements of happiness suffers the first of what is far from its only obstacle. In fact, the ground is so slippery in these parts that it might as well have been greased in Vaseline.
Take this last week of Olympic competition. Despite its economic stagnations and its new legions of the working poor, Britain has simply walked on water. On Saturday night, in the space of around an hour, the country claimed three athletic gold medals through exceptional shows of jumping, running and throwing. As of yesterday, Britain ranked third in the overall medals table, surpassed only by China and the United States. Not for decades has the country felt itself so keen, so integrated into a national narrative thanks to Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, so damnably physically fit.
Yet would it be right to place this dopamine drenching, this feel-good flood-tide, under the concepts of satisfaction or happiness? Could Britain be as wrong to be happy on the Sunday morning as the Inca were to believe their rulers were eternal gods? For wherever you look, the perceptions people have of their own levels of happiness appear skewed by opiates of all descriptions. Self-flagellating monks will say they are happy. North Korean labourers will say they are happy. Mass murderers will even express the most supreme satisfaction, just as Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik did in his recent trial.
There are certainly clever interrogative techniques that help to filter out some of the noise of received belief systems, or the effect of sudden Olympic headrushes, just as there are varieties of moral philosophy that will say a murderer or an addict can claim to be happy, but can never be counted as such. But then again, even with these provisos and cautions, we come up against the inscrutable findings of the Happy Planet Index.
Produced by the New Economics Foundation, based in London, the index attempts to measure countries according to their levels of ecologically sustainable well-being. Life expectancy and the levels of satisfaction reported by citizens redound to a country’s credit; the amount of land used to supply each person’s consumption needs does the opposite. As a result, the United States languishes in 105th place out of 151 countries. “If everyone on the planet were to live like the Americans did in 2008, we would need four planets to maintain our consumption,” the latest report laconically notes.
The truly amazing discovery of the Foundation, however, is that of the global heartland of sustainable well-being: eight of the top nine countries are from Latin America and the Caribbean, with happy-centric Costa Rica leading the pack. Even more extraordinary is to find a country like Honduras, which currently hosts the world’s highest murder rate, standing in 13th position, well ahead of the United Kingdom in 41st. Living in fear of an abrupt and violent termination is apparently manageable, especially if one doesn’t use too much oil. Only a little less grumpy than the Japanese, the Hondurans have either digested news of the overhanging scythe, or simply ignored it in a way that rich consumers cannot do with their angst; carpe diem, the Mesoamerican way.
Whatever one thinks of the perils of this slew of studies and indices, as well as the general unreliability of asking anyone how he or she feels, their mere existence is a reflection of the times. Now that Europe’s economies, bar a happy few, are treading water, or just plain drowning, the time may have come to ask what sort of future growth is worth having, or whether, as Keynes speculated in 1932, we might be better off aiming at three hours’ work a day followed by exercises on the piano.
The problem with staying still, or stuck, is that some members of the society appear to pay no attention, and grow richer as the rest slide down. For them, as for Olympic Britain, there is only one way to go: up the table to the top, and happy only when winning.