Last days of the glee club

Happiness was all the rage among politicians, but attempts to measure the experience suggest it is f

There was a moment when it seemed that happiness might change British politics. Under Tony Blair, in 2002, the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit held seminars exploring the concept of gross national happiness (GNH). Then, in 2006, on a BBC programme called The Happiness Formula, the leader of the opposition, David Cameron, talked of putting not just money in people's pockets, but "joy in people's hearts". He continued, in a speech at Google Zeitgeist Europe 2006, that "it's time we focused not on GDP but on GWB - general well-being". Felicific calculus seemed close to getting a page in the chancellor's Red Book.

That was before the age of austerity, though the science of happiness is having a better time during the downturn than you might presume. In the past week, the government has returned to Cameron's earlier theme with its intention to gauge the nation's happiness via questions on the household survey. This follows the French government's commission on economic performance and social progress, chaired by the economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. After the commission published its report in September 2009, President Nicolas Sarkozy requested that standardised surveys should now include mea­sures for well-being. Then, in May this year, Ben Bernanke, chairman of the US Federal Reserve, gave a speech on the subject in which he said: "Economists researching happiness and life satisfaction have found that both inflation and unemployment detract from happiness." And this month's UN Development Programme report, The Real Wealth of Nations, noted that happiness is a useful complement to other measures of well-being. (The UK came 26th on the "happiness list" - above Portugal but below 17 other European states.)

This science of happiness is championed by the "new utilitarians". They take a lead from the philo­sopher and political radical Jeremy Bentham, who argued that one rule can be used to judge whether an action is good or bad: the increase of pleasure and decrease of pain, or "principle of utility". Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel laureate, has developed a measure that he calls "objective happiness": "a moment-based conception of an aspect of human well-being", as he defines it in The Psychology of Economic Decisions. Roughly, it is a summation of the feelings that an individual has across a period of time - of pleasure or pain, joy or sorrow, satisfaction or dissatisfaction. However, it is readily critiqued.

The toe test

Aggregating happiness in this way requires a "neutral point" against which the report of a feeling can be assessed. If an experience feels above that neutral point, it is deemed pleasurable and good; if below, bad. But do pleasure and pain work like that? Daniel Read of Durham University provides a counter-example. Imagine running a bath, he says. It may be too hot or too cold. So we dip in a toe to check that the temperature is right. However, that midpoint between too hot and too cold is not neutral: it is optimal. Moreover, once in, you may decide to stay put even when the water becomes cold, because the book you are reading is so good.

This points to another set of problems. Your assessment of the moment will depend on a whole range of factors that, experimentally, are very hard to screen out. Then you can add in another difficulty, concerning whether one person's pleasure can be compared with another's. There are some who hate having baths and will shower every time.

All in all, while the science talks of "objective happiness", there is no Geiger counter for feli­city. That these difficulties are hard to circumvent helps explain why, to date, so many of the results of the science seem relatively obvious - at least to non-economists. We are informed that money makes you happy but only up to a point - the so-called Easterlin paradox (rises in income above a minimal level don't generate corresponding rises in happiness); or that being grateful for things generates happiness.

In his book The Happiness Equation, the behavioural economist Nick Powdthavee reports telling his grandmother about the insights of his work. "Tell me something I didn't already know," she replied. Similarly, while Bernanke's speech was weighted with scientific results, his conclusion was humdrum. "Ultimately, life satisfaction requires more than just happiness," he said. "Sometimes, difficult choices can open the doors to future opportunities, and the short-run pain can be worth the long-run gain."

Nonetheless, there is a growing body of data (indicators such as people's mental well-being) that suggests happiness is declining. "Things are not going completely well in western society," Andrew Oswald, professor of behavioural science at Warwick University, told me, citing an article he wrote jointly with Stephen Wu of Hamilton College, New York, published in Science this year. What is not clear is what to do about it. Oswald was a member of the Sarkozy commission and looked hard at interventions that governments might make. Various solutions have been proposed, from cleaner air to sharp tax increases. But Oswald remains cautious: "The economics of happiness is still too new. We don't know the right policy measures."

Too many questions

There is a deeper question to ask, too. The science will continue to gather data showing that GDP as the sole measure of well-being does not serve us well. It will highlight what many sense: that a consumer culture, for all its freedoms, does not necessarily produce satisfied citizens. But can the science tell us what to do?

There is a personal and a political element to this. At a personal level, the direct pursuit of happiness is arguably counterproductive. John Stuart Mill, Bentham's godson and protégé, came to believe that the measuring process could be self-defeating. "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so,' he wrote in his Autobiography. Forget happiness, he implies, for only then might you "inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without . . . putting it to flight by fatal questioning".

Then there is the political question. The science is immature but perhaps it will never be up to telling governments what to do. John May­nard Keynes, another thinker on well-being, suggested as much. He wondered whether happiness is a good subject for economists, pointing out that human beings' fundamental problems are not economic. They are those “of life and of human relations, of creation and behaviour and religion", he wrote in his essay "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren".

We, his grandchildren, have reached the point where our immediate physical needs are mostly well met, in the west at least. The challenge, Keynes wrote, is not to accumulate more, but to live wisely, agreeably and well. Only this "art of living" has become strange to us, because "we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy". The government says it is getting serious about our happiness. But as it implements its austerity measures, it hardly seems likely to advise us to stop striving and start enjoying.

Mark Vernon is the author of "The Good Life" (Hodder, £12.99)

Sense of satisfaction

There are few surprises in the section of the recent UN Development Programme report that ranks the world's nations according to their "perceptions of individual well-being and happiness". Norway tops the list, followed by the massed ranks of the world's most developed nations, including Australia, the US, Canada, Germany and Japan.

At 26, the UK is the lowest-ranked G8 nation apart from Russia, and is beaten by countries as far apart as Ireland (in fifth place) and South Korea (12th). Further down the list, Iran comes in at number 70, Afghanistan at 155, and Zimbabwe brings up the rear.

The methodology comes from the Gallup World Poll, conducted between 2006 and 2009. This survey seeks to measure an individual's "overall satisfaction" with life. Respondents were asked: "All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?" Their evaluation was then given a score between zero and ten. People were also asked for a "daily experience" score.

Although the validity and accuracy of these measurements can be questioned, experts point to a "robust correlation" between these self-assessments and more "objective" measures of happiness, such as sociability, heart rate and electrical activity in the brain.
Caroline Crampton

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Advantage Cameron

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But it is still a question worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was the first person to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.