Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The pursuit of happiness

I am a worker in the great hive of modern consumption- the supermarket. I worked on the checkouts most of the day today and one observation that I have to make is how miserable many of the shoppers are in the day to day task of shopping. I remarked that many looked more miserable than the 18th century illustrations of people about to be hanged at Tyburn
I experienced it myself yesterday shopping in the supermarket where I work yesterday with my daughter. The woman in front of me looked very angry when the queue was delayed for several minutes and turned to me as a likely ally on which to vent her anger about the unfairness of it all. I mean the check out operator by his incompetence was delaying her from, I guess, finishing her string quartet or discovering a cure for cancer.
On most faces today there were grim glassy-eyed expressions and I reminded of, I think, a PG Wodehouse comment about people who looked if ice was forming on their upper slopes.

It is a question worth contemplating how is it at a time when most people have never been healthier, wealthier and safer we becoming more mistrustful, insular and forlorn. In 2010 is pursuit of happiness a worthy goal for politicians to aim for? Mr Cameron seems to think so. And if so how can it be achieved. Certainly it’s claimed that we live in stressed times. I over heard two young women in the supermarket opine that their grandparents did not know what stress was. At such moments I wish I had access to a time machine to transport a ancestor from the Somme to a supermarket queue, whilst their descendant’s could experience what it was like to walk slowly carrying a 60lb pack over a muddy field towards German machine guns as a measure of a stressful situation.

We do kid ourselves if we think that we are the only society that thinks it suffers from increasing stress. I came across a quote by the Victorian Frances Cobbe writing about the 1860s and comparing it with the earlier generation of 30 years earlier.

“ That constant sense of being driven – not precisely like dumb cattle. But cattle who must read, write and talk than 24 hours will permit, can never be known to them”

But still the epidemic of stress and the over blown language that’s used to describe every day occurrences. A friend of mine is annoyed by the inflated use of the words “nightmare” and “misery” to describe being caught in a traffic jam. Rightly he feels use words should be restricted to events like the Haiti earthquake but such hyperbole constantly manifests itself.

Recently  a man came up cheerfully to me and said “There was nothing worse than queuing”. I disagreed with him and pointed out lengthy list starting with death and illness of things that were worse than queuing. He did however add thoughtfully “drowning” to my list of calamities.

I read in a national newspaper a review of a book by two Canadian economics professor’s Curtis Eaton and Mukesh Eswaran, which suggests that greater affluence and widening disparity of wealth can be very damaging to a country’s health. They argue that once an individual reaches a reasonable standard of living than there is no great benefit from increasing the wealth of the population. It might even make them even worse off. It is argued that as consumption shifts to buying status symbols of no intrinsic value such as luxury cars it has a detrimental effect “ they satisfy the owner, making them seem wealthier, but every one else is worse off”.

Their work owes much to the economist Thorstein Veblen, who in 1899 coined the term "conspicuous consumption" in his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen argued that people seek status through conspicuous consumption, which derives its value not from the intrinsic worth of what is consumed but from the fact that it permits people to attempt to set themselves apart from others. As the economy grows, people increasingly choose status symbols or "Veblen goods" over other goods.

"Those with above-average wealth consume Veblen goods with a positive impact on their happiness," the authors write. "But those with below-average wealth simply cannot afford these goods, so they have a negative impact on their happiness. This is known as 'Veblen competition'. As average wealth rises, people grow richer but not happier.

Its thought to explain those study that indicate that we live in an unhappy age. As more and more rush to acquire then they have less time or desire to help others. This has a corrosive effect on community and trust and the well being of society.

All this fits into a debate within economics about how to measure a nation's true wealth. Many economists believe they need to focus more on measuring happiness. The belief that a focus on individual wealth creation at the exclusion of everything else can be divisive has spread around the worlds of politics, psychology and science. Clinical psychologist Oliver James has argued that there is an epidemic of "affluenza" throughout the developed world, with attempts "to keep up with the Joneses" triggering huge increases in depression and anxiety.

Last year a best-selling book by two epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, called The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, argued that Britain and America were the countries with the widest gulfs between rich and poor in the developed world, and as a result had the most health and social problems.

Perhaps an answer does lie in re engaging with other people through community and voluntary work. Interestingly the happiest person I met today was organising a meal  in Leek as a fundraiser for a cancer charity