John Hinton Notebook
In a surprising new survey the Office for National Statistics is asking 200,000 people how “satisfied” they are and how “anxious” they felt the previous day. Just the sort of questions a Big Brother might want to ask, wearing his expansive but rather scary smile. To which Groucho Marx might have responded with his famous line: “Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.” The Government hopes that it will gain a better insight into society from the survey than from traditional economic indicators and tests. “At the moment there’s a fairly high-level aspiration that policy should be based on more than just economic measures”, as Paul Allin, the director responsible, puts it.
Instead, from April, the ONS will ask: “How satisfied are you with your life nowadays? How happy did you feel yesterday? How anxious did you feel yesterday? And to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?” How well these questions will go down on the doorstep seems uncertain. For they seem to be testing our sense of self-worth and aspirations, which may be difficult for the English given that our individualism, pragmatism and fundamental cussedness probably haven’t changed much over the years. One feels sorry for the researchers since many would-be respondents are likely to say “no thanks” and close the door.
This new curiosity about the mood of the people seems to be catching. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has asked Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, a former White House adviser and World Bank chief economist, and a group of international experts to find new ways to measure economic progress taking intoaccount social well-being rather than simply GDP.
Meanwhile, a “Happiness Initiative” in Seattle (where they have computer access and the necessities of life handled) covers nine domains of happiness as identified by international researchers. These include our psychological wellbeing, physical health; timebalance, education, cultural vitality and access, social connection, good government, environmental quality, access to nature and material well-being.
In the British survey there will also be broader questions that are designed to try to explain people’s feelings, “to dig down into the drivers of individuals’ happiness”. This sounds suspiciously like cod-psychology or marketing-speak – part of an Admass world of people with permanent tans enjoying the latest moisturising lotions, sea cruises, microwave suppers and cars that practically drive themselves.
“Digging down” may of course find some who have found happiness by changing their lives – giving up bad habits, becoming more charitable and finding that the straight and narrow way which they studiously avoided is a broad, sunlit highway, replete with rewards. And the more they find faith to travel along it, the joy of discovering that most human beings are good-hearted people who wish them well.
In Catholicism, the ultimate end of human existence consists in felicity or “blessed happiness”, described by Thomas Aquinas as a Beatific Vision of God’s essence in the next life. But the inner glow of happiness produced by the knowledge that Christ is always with us is not, it seems, part of the survey’s parameters.
And perhaps it should be.