Lori Anderson: Why happiness is now big business

The pursuit and measurement of happiness has become an obsession, but are both doomed to fail, asks Lori Anderson.

Our happiness is no longer just a private matter
Our happiness is no longer just a private matter

I remember sitting with my friends in the school dining room, hunched over our 10.30am hot scones with butter, arguing about happiness.
I wanted to be content rather than happy, they thought this was a cop out, a failure of ambition on my part but chasing the state of happiness made me twitchy, it seemed as elusive as running after a fire fly with a jam jar.

Today everyone seems to feel that their lives should be illuminated by their very own jam jar crammed to the lip with glowing fireflies. Happiness is no longer a fleeting gift to be treasured but a perpetual right, as permanent and consistent as running water. In recent years the pursuit of our well deserved happiness has become a multi-billion industry with surveys, workshops and academic research, we chant, we fast, we smudge all in the hope of adding a little more brightness to our lives.

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I remember one book on the subject, The Happiness Project by Gretchen Ruben, whose garish cover was ever so aesthetically challenging to me, if ever a book deserved a brown paper wrapper it was this one, yet the contents were even worse. I eventually chucked it in the bin, whilst my friend threw it across the room, the life that she wasn’t happy with incited nothing but envy in our little book club of two and a disdain for the author’s privileged entitlement.

Is it a Scottish thing to be suspicious of those who are happy all the time? I suspect a rousing group ‘yes’ to that question. We applaud sarcy wit and mordant humour but those who pursue happiness and joy are perceived with an entrenched atavistic lip curl. The detrimental, historical working class answer to the pursuit of happiness may be an order of a ‘hauf and a hauf”, I see it as an entrenched kaleidiscopic twist of the “Glasgow Effect”.

When it comes to happiness I’ve always looked to the Ancient Greeks, for they are almost as dour as us, and it seems so much easier to swallow their literary prescriptive medicine, than the florid, joy drenched incantations of a Beverly Hills guru. Aristotle said: “happiness depends upon ourselves”, while Socrates concluded that “the secret to happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”

Once happiness was a private matter but in recent years it has become a matter of public policy. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham may have suggested in the 18th century that maximising happiness was the task of government but in Britain it wasn’t until the 21st century and David Cameron’s premiership that the government finally acted. Since 2011 the Office of National Statistics has been calculating how happy we all are by asking a randomised study of 160,000 people across the UK to answer four questions on a scale of one to ten. How satisfied are you with your life? Do you feel what you do is worthwhile? How happy did you feel yesterday? How anxious did you feel yesterday?

The average person in Britain has a happiness rating of seven, and an anxiety rating of two and despite Brexit we are less anxious than we were in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Across the country there exists places with a “happiness gap” as a new study, published earlier this week, made clear. The areas with the most pronounced “happiness gap” were Merseyside, the Welsh Valleys and in Scotland Inverclyde and North Ayrshire. In many places the gap was linked to areas of high unemployment. There were also anomalies in the report published by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing.

On average lower levels of education usually equated to lower levels of happiness, except in areas such as Orkney and Shetland where lower levels of education actually equated higher levels of happiness. However it is most likely that the tight community spirit found on the islands, as well as other factors, more than compensated for any educational drag.

I’m curious as to why the state wants us to be happier, especially as we have never been able to agree on an actual definition of happiness. Big business is also increasingly concerned with their employee’s happiness, at least they certainly are in American corporations where ‘chief happiness officers’ are increasingly popping up like demented clowns, a curiosity in a culture where the average annual holiday is only two weeks. Google even has an official “Jolly Good Fellow”.

I can understand why the likes of British Airways have trialled a ‘happiness blanket’ which turns from red to blue reflecting a passenger’s level of relaxation and contentment and alerting air stewards to those who are insufficiently ‘happy’, but why the new obsession for big business and the government? The answer is productivity, for it seems that a happy employee is on average 12 per cent more productive than an unhappy employee.

Yet can anyone actually pursue happiness, as the Americans had written into their Constitution as an inalienable right? Like the fireflies, I think we can pursue it, whether or not we catch it is another matter.

I think a more effective way to consider happiness is to think of it as by-product that can spontaneously blossom from contentment, kindness, gratitude and consideration for others. I also think I’m going to be more positive in my outlook, as perhaps all Scots should, after all, even Renton in Trainspotting 2 concluded with the brow-beaten wisdom of middle-age:

Choose the ones you love

Choose your future

Choose life

One could even add: choose happiness.