Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Happiness

**** Rant Warning! Four Star Rant Ahead! ****

Yesterday being a slow news day, the BBC ran an article on the ten o'clock programme about Happiness. This is a bit of a con, since it was more of an advertisement for another BBC programme that starts tonight. But the gist of the article was that we are a lot wealthier than we were fifty years ago, but also a lot less happy.

Now I haven't seen the programme, and I've only half listened to the news, but it seems this startling revelation was uncovered by asking a random selection of people: 'How happy are you?'

In 1957, 52% answered 'Very happy,' and probably added 'guvnor', tipped their hat and skipped off home beat their wives and children into submission. In 2006, only 36% were very happy, the rest of us remaining resolutely miserable.

This then was the headline, and the thesis being expounded is that our increased wealth - we are apparently three times as well off as we were in the fifties - is actually making us depressed and glum. What the news failed to tell us was that in the seventies, the Very Happy contingent were a mere 34% of the population (those who didn't mind wearing flared trousers, I assume.) By the end of the last century (or millennium, if you prefer), only 30% of us could raise a smile. So we may be morose, but we're positively chipper now by comparison.

But enough of poking fun at the statistics. The real reason I am so riled with this news advertisement is the extrapolation taken from it. Apparently those who know about these things have calculated that once average earnings exceed around £10,000 per annum, increased wealth does not make us any more happy. That seems a little low to me, but then I have high expectations. It doesn't take a genius to work out that the richer a society (at least in the capitalist, monetarist west), the greater the gap will be between what we are presented with as aspirational and what we can actually achieve with our income. The rich and the beautiful might be able to swan around in luxury cars and take expensive holidays, but the rest of us have to make do and muddle. We're not exactly miserable, but we're not going to be delirious with joy, either.

But the news went a step further. The poll asked people if they thought the prime objective of government should be to make us wealthier, or to make us happier. And it was at this point that I found myself asking What The Fuck?

Surely neither of those objectives is anything to do with government. Sure they should try not to make us any less happy, and strive not to make us poorer, but actually having as an agenda that they should be making us happier? That doesn't really square up with my idea of a government's responsibilities.

Governments are there to facilitate the running of the state. They organise the health service, education, prisons and courts. They build and maintain our transport infrastructure, protect us from criminal and military assault with police and armed forces. They regulate (and some would say too much) how we carry out commerce and how we make and sell things. All of these actions either work, in which case we prosper, or don't, and the country goes into decline.

Happiness and wealth in the population are symptoms of a successful government, not goals in themselves.

There is a suggestion in the happiness poll that we should be teaching happiness in schools. The poll asked whether schools should place more emphasis on teaching children how to be happy, and less on preparing them for the world of work. This to me seems completely ludicrous, but more than half of the respondents said that schools should do so.

Again, what the fuck? Schools aren't supposed to teach children how to be good little citizens. They're not meant to be factories churning out identikit, unquestioning, nuclear families, all convinced that they've never had it so good. That's not right, surely? Schools are meant to be about learning. It's the responsibility of parents to educate their children in such nebulous subjects as ethics, self-discipline and happiness, not schools. And certainly not government.

The state has swollen out of all proportion in the last ten years. It consumes a higher percentage of the country's gross national product, and employs more civil servants than ever before. It gets its fingers into almost every aspect of our lives and it is very, very bad at whatever it does. Individual civil servants may be nice, hard-working, put-upon people just trying to do their best in a difficult and confusing world, but government departments, agencies and other quangoes are inefficient, incompetent, soulless and socially destructive organisations. If anything is driving the happiness out of this country, it is the all-enveloping bear-hug embrace of the state. The more we are regulated, boxed in, stopped from expressing ourselves freely; the more the government seeks to control us 'in our best interests', the more miserable we are going to become. And the more disrespectful of authority.

If we really are unhappy, it's because we see our everyday freedoms being chipped away by mindless bureaucrats, champagne socialist politicians and a vast army of well-meaning but misguided people who truly believe that you can legislate blind obedience. You want to make me happy? Give me less government, not more. Let me make my own decisions and take my own responsibility for them.

Now try and guess who gets my vote.

4 Comments:

Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

People aren't happy because they don't know what they want in life.

But happiness is somewhat overrated. "Without the sorrows of life, the joys would not exist."

We don't appreciate 'happy' if we've never known some 'unhappy'.

May 03, 2006 5:34 pm  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

I feel like phoning and hanging up repeatedly.

May 04, 2006 12:56 am  
Blogger Trace said...

I know what happiness is now. Happiness is a cat purring next to my head while I drift off to sleep, dog kisses on my face, having a bit of extra cash to buy hazelnut cream coffee and a paperback here and there, and being rid of an asshat of a husband.

May 04, 2006 3:18 pm  
Blogger JamesO said...

Sandra, it's true that you can't really appreciate happiness until you've tasted a little misery, and there's nothing quite so comforting as being thoroughly miserable for a while. I've got friends who are only truly content when they're moaning about something...

(And in case anyone is wondering, there was a spam comment between those two posts, but I deleted it.)

Trace - the two sides of happiness; being able to enjoy the things you like, and not having to put up with the things you don't. I hope yours lasts a good while yet.

May 04, 2006 3:56 pm  

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