Smile or dieby / December 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Can we measure happiness? Since David Cameron lauded “General Well-Being” (GWB), over GDP, the official view has been yes. In November, the Office for National Statistics reported that we are generally slightly happier since the Brexit result—at least in England. There’s a surprise!
I say that as most of those I encounter on social media and elsewhere could hardly express greater misery over Brexit; they may admittedly not be the perfect cross-section. But their gloom echoes the miseries assailing the wider population that I encounter in daily news coverage. One figure from another government-funded project, states that one in four girls suffer from clinical depression by the age of 14, another survey that half of all 11-18-year-old girls experience online bullying. Suicides among men continue to rise—closely correlated with their economic exposure. Other reports tell me that fear of the future is rendering the UK economy stagnant; while MI5 warns us that Britain faces its most severe terrorist threat. Alongside this daily diet of gloom, I note that dystopic fantasies dominate the popular imagination, never expectations of a better world. Blade Runner, The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale draw in the crowds, by depicting future disaster.
Happiness, it would seem, is measured and fed back to us despite, or is it because of, the misery we know to surround us. More-over, there are reasons to suspect that the current stress on happiness can itself promote new forms of social anxiety and control. Despite the tight correlation existing between escalating rates of depression and the social disorders of the present—poverty, housing and work insecurity—we have seen a further pathologising of misery, with each of us held personally responsible for furthering our own well-being. Smile or Die is how some have described that pressure to show a cheerful face; start frowning and you may well lose your job, especially in the burgeoning and insecure service sector.
So what really is being measured, and why? Self-evidently, the answer to “how happy are you?” is in part a matter of cultural conditioning. In France—unlike “have a nice day” America—jobs are well regulated for those who have them. But Claudia Senik of the Sorbonne comments: “Whenever I look at data on happiness levels that cover several countries… the French malaise comes through.” Perhaps the French are just confident enough to be open.
It’s hard not to suspect that the emphasis on happiness exists partly to hide something we really do need to address, which is how lonely and unhappy so many people are. We might have guessed this when the person chosen as the UK’s Happiness Tsar, Richard Layard—who has described “crippling depression and chronic anxiety” as the greatest problem of the moment—called for massive state funding for cognitive based therapy (CBT) partly to improve business efficiency, estimating “loss of output” from such misery at £12 billion a year. CBT may prove helpful for some. Yet it side-lines awareness that both our miseries and our pleasures have a public as well as a private dimension. Amid the official talk of happiness, there is little rhetoric of joy. Yet contagious, collective delight is still not so hard to observe, though nowadays it is usually confined to particular times and places, often with commercial formats—as on football terraces when our team scores, or at music festivals. Collective highs are reserved for those who can afford them.
Searching for collective joy, the American feminist Barbara Ehrenreich studied the fate of its earlier forms, the public carnivals once tied in with religious holidays, when people could be found, literally, Dancing in the Streets, the title of her book. Ehrenreich traced the long history of western suppression of such festivals, which often mocked authorities and gleefully reversed hierarchies. Earlier, the father of sociology, Emile Durkheim, noted how the “collective effervescence” of festivals helped affirm a sense of belonging in pre-industrial communities; Max Weber attributed the loss of festive collectivity to the dour self-absorption of protestant modernity. It has reached new heights with the new project of self-improvement through self-monitoring nowadays stiffened by the ubiquitous virtual gaze.
Yet, sometimes we do manage to escape that gloomy tyrant, the self, and move beyond personal concerns—happy or miserable—into conscious participation in public life. This connects with what I call radical happiness, those moments of shared engagement and resistance when we manage to imagine better times, and our role in shaping them. Such activities do not in themselves dismantle pervasive insecurities, but they can bring shared energy and hope. This was evident when hundreds of thousands joined protests worldwide, all led by women, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. There was surprising joy afloat.
Ironically, we often renew our attachments to life by embracing its sorrows as well as its joys. The happiness industry will never understand that. Nor will it grasp the pressing political need: an optimism of the will to encourage the solidarities that can confront an unfair world. To create liveable human futures, and ensure that fewer people end up depressed and discarded, we must work together for change, grasping what joy we can along the way.