Random thoughts on Latest BBC ‘Happiness’ Programme

Just listened to Claudia Hammond’s BBC programme on happiness. I like Claudia’s reporting and this is a good programme but it still surfs closed to the edge of the Moral Maze debate I took exception to. We have all the usual suspects: Martin Siegelman and Wellington College plus a token philosopher (Julian Baggini – who makes some good points).

Some random notes to self:

  • It is assumed that happiness is subjective and difficult to measure unlike GDP and economic measures yet this glosses over the “oops” moment we have just had with the economy. It is easy enough to count money but much harder to know whether an economy is stable and we shouldn’t confuse the two. Similarly it might be easy to measure peoples basic mood but hard to say whether the population is ‘happy’. That shouldn’t stop us doing it any more than it stops us measuring GDP. i.e.  ‘happiness’ may be no harder to measure than economics we just aren’t used to it. Remember “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”  Galbraith
  • Optimism, for me, has nothing to do with happiness. In the long run we are all dead (including our children) so I can’t help thinking that talk of optimism in this context is just a measure of how deluded or short term one can be. Does this come from an unhealthy association with a desire for consumer confidence which I have a sneaky suspicion is integrated with Martin Siegelman’s world view.
  • Resilience is likewise “only” a coping strategy. There is some merit in the notion of trying to get a larger perspective on things but it is interesting what isn’t mentioned. The example in the programme is of a woman shot down over Iraq during the first Gulf war. She lists the the extremes of her resilience scenario as living in pain for many years in captivity or getting early release and heading home – which is nice and neat but ill thought through. Surely a worse case scenario for a soldier is that he/she has fort, killed and is dying for the wrong side – a moment of realisation that they are the bad guys. (I am not suggesting that this was the case in this war). Think Vietnam vet as an example of someone who years later discovers a ‘real’ worse case scenario and the associated cognitive dissonance.
  • Hope – ditto for Optimism.

So much of this debate is missing the point. This being a blog I can assume the hubris of defining what makes people happy.

If you want to be happy then simply step off the hedonic treadmill for a moment. As soon as you disengage your emotional state from a set of requirements (over which you usually have little control) you will discover that you are naturally and profoundly ‘happy’. There are tricks for how to do this. Personally I meditate.  There are probably other ways although they will all be marked by a certain dissolution of the self. You can see this in the steps recommended by the positive psychology movement which usually include acts of kindness, gratitude, forgiveness, acknowledgment of interdependence etc.

What should the government do to help people step off the treadmill? Favour stable employment over flexibility. Reduce continuous exposure to earning and spending money – perhaps by bringing back Sunday trading laws and restricting advertising. Make it easy for people to spend time in open, non-commercialised spaces close to nature where there is little to achieve beyond experiencing being there. More parks and gardens and walking to work. More free time. Full employment but less discretionary spending money. Virtually none of this appears to be compatible with our current version of the free market which makes it not only unlikely to happen but also difficult for people to see as a possibility.

The programme is made by the punch line from Falicia Huppert – It should be the Happiness of Pursuit rather than the Pursuit of Happiness.

[Edit 2011-02-09]

Oh dear – I just realized a lot of this material is rehashed from a 2009 All In the Mind programme.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.