Saturday, April 16, 2005

Competitive Happiness

Richard Layard is a highly respected scientist, founder and director of the Centre for Economic Perfomance and member of the House of Lords. He has also been consultant to various British government agencies since 1968. He has also written a book (Happiness - Lessons from a New Science) which may well influence policies of the (next? Labour?) UK government. You know all that already, but were you aware that his brains are run by a very sturdy 1985 Casio pocket calculator? A happy one, I'm sure.

The upshot of the book is that we can now measure happiness. And if we can measure it, naturally governments should measure it. After all happiness or well-being are more important than such harsh and mean things as GDP? Tony Blair's government is all agog: A Whitehall source confirmed that the Government was looking at introducing a well-being indicator to see what benefits there may be for policy-making.

"Will this actually make people happier?"
Please don't ask such silly questions! Maybe some funds for renovating the public swimming pool, or a district nurse here and there will have to be re-allocated. But think of the happiness of the economists! How their abacus, Texas Instruments, and slide rule brains click together in merry, if somewhat protracted, meetings. And then the bliss of estate agents frollicking as the regional well-being-index is published and they can finally get rid of that rotten hovel! The real fun, however, will only start once the design for the Ministry of Happiness is approved. For the neuroscientist, psychologists, sociologist, down to the humble researchers with their clipboards there will be good cheer all the year round. And then, my cup runneth over, the ecstatic day when the first EU-Commissioner of felicity is confirmed in office.

A note to sci-fi authors: Don't you dream of using this scenario as a treatment for your next book. The cornerstone for this delightful future is already a fact. Look at A well-being manifesto for a flourishing society, produced by a labour associated think tank.

I hate long posts, but I haven't finished yet!

Happiness in the Corridors of Fear I
We don't need Richard Layards book to know that many people spend their lives in those corridors: Schools (highest concentration near the staff-room), university (will the students pass exams, will the lecturers get tenure, will the professors get funding), and out in the workplace... Here are two tiny snap-shots of the new kinds of scene we are likely to witness once the Ministry of Happiness is established:

The place is an large board-room, but it is not impressive. The revolution of design was swift. Light colours dominate and the artwork on the walls are whimsical calligraphic interpretations of ancient jokes. The executives sport suits in soothing pastels. Only the labour representative wears a dark grey, slightly crumpled suit. But the shiniest of all is Penny Thrillbeam from the FlouriFul Consultancy:

"It is only a matter of weeks now till the FTSE will be linked to the well-being-index. But we have assessed your organisation very thoroughly and here are our suggestions: Indepth psychological examination once a year for every employee. If treatment is necessary it will be deducted from the wages. Religious doubt, marital disagreements, or nightmares have to be reported immediately. Oh, and divorcees will be happier elsewhere."

The union man crumpled a little more. He knew he would have a hard time selling a professional comedian during lunch break and a gift-bonus for Valentine's Day as a success.

Happiness in the Corridors of Fear II
The second snap-shot: A dingy room. Lots of old-fashioned metal and light grey. The personell manager's smile seems a little worn:
"Thank you, Mr. Poynter. Your previous experience and your know-how are really impressive. And I think you could be a welcome addition to our company. But there is your well-being-questionaire to consider. You are not married, it seems?
"No", Carl looks radiantly happy. His eyes gleam.
"No community work?"
"I played in a pop band when I was twelve."
"But you stopped?"
"Had to, the lead singer kept imitating Marilyn Manson."
"And no regular religious practice?"
"There is this relaxation CD I sometimes use."
"This looks bad, Mr. Poynter. You see, we largely depend on government funding. And in such a small company as ours you would really mess up the statistics. If I ever were sorry, I'd be sorry to tell you that you will probably be happier elsewhere."
Carl kept smiling while he left. He knew a DVD rental where you could get Ingmar Bergman films, if you knew how to ask. Tonight he would indulge himself and first thing on Monday morning he'd find himself a decent happy happy joy joy coach.

Happy Horror
Back to the here and now. There are hundreds of sites reviewing Layard's book. Some take it at face value and simply agree. Oh yes, the world out there is so cold and ruthless. It is time someone finally acknowledged that. It may be true that people were happier in the 1950ies, but I'd really like to know how the scientists Layard relies on managed their double blind studies.
Thankfully the study was also criticised left right and centre. The Economist thinks that happiness is a private matter. The Times online berates Layard for
"perpetrating the myth that a grand utopian vision imposed from above by the Government has the slightest chance of increasing the sum of human joy by so much as a single bar of chocolate (which is, I find, by far the best measure of bliss)."

The LA Times sees the book as an excuse for right wing fiscal politics:
If money really causes more problems than it solves, Bush's second term will provide even greater happiness to the middle class and something approaching euphoria for the poor.

But by far wittiest take on Layard was that of the Denenberg Report. It uses the author's own rankings for happiness and unhappiness to argue that happiness would be enhanced, unhappiness practically eliminated, if we all had lots of money and no work to do.

None of the reviews and blogs I looked at pointed out that Layards thesis almost looks like a secularised version of the christian rich man's difficulty of getting into heaven while the poor man always gets a backstage pass.

And there is always a suspicion that nostalgia is at work when you are told to look back to the toothless, unheated, MTV-free 1950ies. And I'm sorry, Lord Layard, nostalgia is as old as the hills - probably a bit older.

How happy was Holden Caulfield?
In the 1950ies, I think, you were expected to have a cheerful outlook. If you were there at all, it meant you had survived WWII. Psychoanalysis was a pastime for fevered intellectuals. The majority would have been ashamed to confess their unhappiness to wandering psychologists. But it boiled underneath. How happy was Holden Caulfield? How happy were the beatniks? After 1968 and Vietnam there was no holding back. Finally you could publicise your innermost feelings. At first this felt so good that you stuck flowers everywhere and smiled a lot. But once all those feelings were out in the open it turned out that not all of them were all that blissful...

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