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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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood