The UK government’s annual well-being survey, launched by David Cameron in 2012 at the height of his prime ministerial optimism, revealed this week that every part of Britain was more unhappy than the previous year – not surprising given we are enduring a global pandemic – but Scotland remained at the bottom of the misery pile for the third year running.
And Glasgow, the city that will be at the centre of global attention over the next fortnight, is the most miserable place in Scotland for the third year in a row, further proof that our despair set in long before Covid. Three cheers for Orkney and the Outer Hebrides as they are the happiest places to be – despite, it seems, Scotland’s ferry problem.
The survey measures four indicators of well-being, or happiness. Respondents are asked how happy they feel, their satisfaction with their lot, the extent to which they feel the things they do are worthwhile, and their anxiety levels.
Northern Ireland, which until 1998 had endured 30 years of bloody civil war, leaving more than 3,500 of its people dead, is the happiest place in the UK, scoring highest in all four categories. The Welsh suffer the most from anxiety, while the Scots, forever Calvinist, are the least likely to feel their life is worthwhile.
At least we are as satisfied with our lot as our English and Welsh cousins, but further research shows this is hardly cause for celebration. In the 2021 World Happiness Report, the UK slipped five places in one year, down to 18. Heaven knows, we are all miserable now.
Finland, where price of the alcohol is 91 per cent higher than the European average, is the happiest country in the world for the fourth year in a row. Iceland, whose banking system crashed in 2008, is in second place. Counter-intuitive perhaps, but more of them later.
But does the well-being of a nation’s citizens matter? And what is happiness anyway? There are two schools of thought.
Happiness as pleasure is straightforward. Think of that moment when you sink into a hot, scented bath after a tough day, a glass of chilled white wine in your hand; or when your three-year-old grandson, without prompting, tells you he loves you; or your football team wins the Scottish Cup after 114 years.
Those moments, as intensely pleasurable as they may be, are different from Aristotle’s definition of happiness, which is much more akin to well-being.
Two years ago, Professor Edith Hall, of Kings College, London, published Aristotle’s Way. It is a primer for living a good life based on the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher, who, according to Professor Hall, believed that the ultimate goal of human life is, “simply, happiness”.
In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, she argued that his definition of happiness “means finding a purpose in order to realise your potential and working on your behaviour to become the best version of yourself”.
She went on to say that Aristotle claimed that happiness is achievable by almost all of us. “Happiness is not a state as far as Aristotle is concerned, it’s an activity,” Hall explained. “You have to do it. It means every encounter and every day of your life and every decision you take, trying to do it in a measured and deliberated way until it becomes habitual.”
Aristotle also believed that leisure is more important than work, that alcohol is good for you, but in moderation, and that we don’t reach our peak until we are 49 years old. He was spot on about red wine and age bringing wisdom, but does his central tenet, that happiness is our ultimate goal, hold true today?
Nicola Sturgeon seems to think so. In a major speech, delivered in January 2020 as the pandemic was quietly gathering pace, she attempted to redefine what it means to be a successful nation by focusing on people’s well-being as well as the country’s GDP – the traditional measure of success.
She put happiness at the heart of her new economic strategy, arguing that this means “we can focus on a wider set of measures which reflect on things like the health and happiness of citizens as well as economic wealth to create a world that considers the quality of a person’s life to be as precious an asset as financial success”.
And Scotland, it turns out, is a founding member of WeGo (the Well-being Economy Governments Group) which now includes the happy countries of Iceland and Finland, as well as New Zealand and the slightly anxious Wales.
Yet, despite the First Minister’s assertion that people’s happiness is now as important as economic success, Scotland remains stubbornly miserable.
It may be that our national character is more Rev I M Jolly than Disneyland. The pandemic has most certainly dampened our mood. And speaking personally, I find the First Minister’s constant threat of a second referendum on whether Scotland should leave the UK to be both unsettling and depressing.
But is her well-meaning focus on well-being missing the point? Surely people will be able to work on being happy, as Aristotle suggests, when they have secure employment that pays well, a warm house that doesn’t cost the earth to heat, and a health service that meets their needs. GDP does matter.
If Scotland is to emerge from its current anguished state, perhaps the First Minister should concentrate on building an economy that works for everyone and first-class public services available to all, before measuring how happy we are. She might be surprised at how quickly our national mood improves.