Friday, 25 February 2011

"Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?"

So we’re back to pursuing happiness – or rather to the government’s appointed counters of stuff asking us questions about our state of happiness.

"Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?" We learned this week that that is one of four new questions being inserted into the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Household Survey as the UK's official number crunchers try to assess the well-being of the nation.

The purpose of this exercise is not to get Britain thinking happy thoughts as the axe falls: the determination to measure well-being pre-dates both the coalition and the age of austerity. The real point is to find a better way of measuring social progress than simply how much stuff we have got.

Or that’s what the BBC says about the measurement of happiness – apparently increased material well-being doesn’t make us any happier. We may be a whole load richer, healthier and less stressed than our forebears. We may have things to make our lives better even than the richest 1950s plutocrat. But, as the song goes:

I can't get no satisfaction,
I can't get no satisfaction.
'Cause I try and I try and I try and I try.
I can't get no, I can't get no.

However, our government wants to know just how dissatisfied – how pissed off and grumpy we are – so as to...well, I guess try to make us happier? And perhaps it will be like this:

"Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn't nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand." (Huxley, ‘Brave New World’ Ch16)

Of course, for Huxley’s dystopic paradise happiness and stability came at a price – liberty. And a dulling of life’s edge:

“You can't make flivvers without steel-and you can't make tragedies without social instability. The world's stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can't get."

Get the drift? The Government wishes to measure something called “social progress” – which is measured not through “citius, altius, fortius” but through contentment, mere satisfaction.

...governments could be judged by how happy they make us.

An adviser to the Prime Minister*, David Halpern, told us that within the next 10 years the government would be measured against how happy it made everybody.
*Note this was an advisor to Mr Blair

And how do you make people content? By removing risk, by creating stability and by providing pane et circenses – bread and circuses. Independence of thought, the challenging of norms, questioning life’s sacred cows – these things do not make us happy. And worse, by undermining our neighbour’s contentment they run counter to the cause of well-being.

Government has no responsibility or duty or right to ask me as to my happiness – that is my bother and worry. What is worse though is that Mr Cameron’s happy world contains a brutal attack on my pleasures and the pleasures of my friends:

But he said the government also had to focus on the long-term and he said "the country would be better off if we thought about well-being as well as economic growth".

GDP was too "crude" a measure of progress as it failed to take into account wider social factors - he cited the example of "irresponsible" marketing to children, an immigration "free for all" and a "cheap booze free for all", which had all boosted economic growth at the expense of social problems.

Measuring happiness becomes an instrument of social control – intervening in the choices of parents, ripping cans of lager from the clutches of 19-year-old skinheads and make poorly old women stand out in the rain and cold to have a fag. The message is that clever people with clipboards, spreadsheets and fancy formulae know better how to make us content, how to create the stability of a dead society.

I do not wish for the deadening stability of a content society. A society so content is loses creativity, spark, has all the fight removed – not through aggression but through a hideous, soft blanket of comforting social drugs. A place where nothing’s our fault, where child-rearing is the state’s role, where our governors consider our silence to be satisfaction – and where happiness, the goal of government, is purchased with banal, dumbed-down events and the drug of conformity.

“Overall, yesterday...I was grumpy!”

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