The index of happiness in the UK
15 January 2011
We’ve been hearing everywhere, for the last month: Crăciun fericit! An nou fericit! Or: Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! But, I wonder, to what extent do these expressions translate the same wish – in other words, do “fericit” and “happy” mean one and the same thing? Do the British feel happiness in the same way we do? Or does happiness feel different for them? There are in fact two aspects of this question. The first one is: what does “happy holidays” mean for different nations? The second one is: can we extrapolate this meaning of happiness (attributed to festive times) for the notion of happiness in general? In other words, when someone says, “I’m happy,” “such and such news made me happy,” or “my children lead a happy life in such and such place,” does this person attempt to communicate the same kind of feeling or state as the one we associate with the holidays?
The index of wellbeing in the British Isles
There is a tendency, in the majority of developed countries, to replace the old reference of prosperity (GDP, the gross domestic product) with a more complex and varied instrument of measure, concerning the “wellbeing” of the population in general, not only its economic living standard. This tendency is based on the fact that more and more recent studies (analytical as well as statistical) demonstrated that between happiness and prosperity there is only a weak and superficial correlation: “Even in the slums of Calcutta most people apparently describe themselves as reasonably happy. If we can trust these self-reports, most humans have a disposition to find happiness in their actual circumstances” ((Thomas Nagel, în The New York Review of Books, December, 2010). In other words, money does not buy happiness; happiness comes from the wellbeing felt by every human in the environment where he or she can feel at home.
In this effort to replace the traditional measurement standard of wellbeing (based exclusively on the economic situation, as translated by the GDP), Great Britain is among the first countries (along with France and Canada) to have initiated a project of measurement of wellbeing (or happiness) by means of other indicators, more diversified and adapted to the complexity of life. Within this new method, the income or the financial situation is only one of the criteria for evaluating the state of the population. Other criteria are: professional satisfaction, the possibility of having a word to say in issues of local or national importance, a network of family and friends, the state of the environment, public safety (level of criminality), health, education and professional competences, cultural and personal activities.
The survey, conducted by a British expert in statistics, will be carried out this spring and aims at producing a set of data (to be updated periodically) regarding the quality of life in the British Isles.
A similar initiative already exists. A few years ago, the New Economics Foundation, based in London, published an “Index of happiness on Earth,” a comparative survey of different wellbeing indicators applied to different European nations. The indicators were organised in three categories: overall personal wellbeing, overall social wellbeing, and professional satisfaction (work). The results were later fused in an index of combined wellbeing, and among the countries included, Denmark registered the highest level of wellbeing (with a general score of 5.94 points), followed by Switzerland (5.71), Norway (5.66), Ireland (5.46), Austria (5.45), and Sweden (5.44). Great Britain ranked somewhere in the medium row (with 5.01 points), and Ukraine at the bottom (4.32 points). Romania was not part of this survey…
The new conservative government allocated two million pounds to this project. The initiative is considered courageous, in the present socio-economic environment, marked by budgetary restrictions and strikes. Despite these social turbulences, Prime Minister David Cameron insists that the time has come to replace the old standard for the wellbeing of the population (the GDP) with a measure more diverse and more significant. “We will continue, of course, to consider the GDP… (do you have the original quotation?).
An archbishop’s apprehensiveness
Dr. Barry Morgan, archbishop of Wales, chose the celebration of Christ’s birth as an occasion to express his deep discontent with the list of criteria taken as indicators for the state of wellbeing within the project described above. In his opinion, these criteria emphasize too much the individual aspects of existence, and they can make people feel selfish, introspective and unhappy. In his Christmas sermon at the Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff, Dr. Morgan denounced the accent put on individualist criteria, which would “encourage people to dwell on their own needs,” neglecting those of the others. According to the archbishop, people would be happier if they learned how to put others’ needs ahead of their own. When we look at the other with justice and compassion, “not only do we reflect God’s nature and become more fully the kind of people God wants us to become, but we also become truly fulfilled and happy human beings” (BBC Wales, 25/12/2010).
The danger against which Dr. Morgan warns – that the survey initiated by the government will accentuate the individualist tendencies of the society, instead of constituting a measure of true happiness – is the symptom of an older illness in the Anglo-Saxon world, which to my mind no survey is able to aggravate or to abolish. At the same time, I can’t see how this could be done, given that these are illnesses of the soul and they can’t find any cure in social practices.
And the long-forgotten village of Mușenia…
Indeed, what is lacking in the list of criteria for measuring the state of wellbeing is the spiritual dimension of the relationship with divinity – not to mention the absence of communion with nature, plants and surrounding beings… I don’t know weather this absence is a sign of the distance in time, or maybe only in space, from the times and places when / in which this sort of communion was essential to human survival. I will take only one example.
A cousin of mine on my father’s side, Casian (named after the saint of Scythian origin from the 5th century) was telling me how in the village our family came from, Muşenita (department of Suceava), there was, like in all Bucovina, a saying: Easter is Easter, but Christmas is a feast. And from my cousin’s descriptions of Christmas customs, I understood that, for the villagers of that region, all things (of all kinds – visible or invisible, human, heavenly, or animal) are interconnected and have a religious meaning. The meals had to have 12 courses, in order to coincide with the number of the apostles who took part in the Last Supper. The food bore Christian names and meanings: “pelincile Domnului” [God’s nappies], boiled wheat decorated with cross-shaped sugar, fish, etc., and the serving of the meal started with the lighting of three candles (symbolizing the Trinity?) and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Under the tablecloth, people used to put dry wildflowers, especially scented clover, which were later given, along with the meal leftovers, as food to the animals. This was meant to obtain their pardon for the possible wrongdoings that owners had made themselves guilty of throughout the year.
There was this old belief according to which on Christmas Eve animals around the house were given the gift of speech and they could judge their owner on the way they were taken care of, fed and watered, put to work or left to rest. They would praise the owner if they were well taken care of, they would decry his misdeeds if they were neglected or overworked throughout the year.
Happiness, it seems, though bearing the same name, is lived differently on various latitudes. But time also changes its depth and meaning. What yesterday looked like happiness, today is looked upon with indifference or, at the most, with curiosity…
Heartfelt thanks to my cousin, professor Casian Lucașciuc, for the beautiful stories about our past. I can’t wait for him to bring back more memories from my other life. Sometimes we really don’t know ourselves. Here’s to Socrates!