Happiness and the making of daisy chains…

There has been more in the media this week about happiness. An old theme on thisfragiletent- see here and here.

The latest interest followed the release of a report suggesting the following-

A survey of 1,000 Americans found that happiness rose in line with salary, but only until people earned $75,000 a year, the equivalent of around £50,000.

Earning more than this did nothing to boost how happy people were, according to Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist at Princeton University in New Jersey, who won the Nobel prize for economics in 2002.

Kahneman teamed up with Angus Deaton, an economist at Princeton, to analyse 450,000 responses to a daily survey on happiness and life satisfaction run by Gallup in 2008 and 2009.

The survey asked people to rate how happy they felt each day, based on their experiences of emotions such as joy, worry, sadness and fascination. They were then asked to rate their overall satisfaction with life, on a scale where zero was the worst they could imagine life to be and 10 being the best.

The researchers found that life satisfaction rose steadily the more people were paid. Happiness rose with income too, but plateaued when people reached an annual salary of $75,000. For those on more, happiness appeared to depend on other factors.


It raises lots of issues for me-

Why do we keep using MONEY as a measure of happiness? Sure, there is point at which poverty (our ability to meet basic needs- including those relative to those around us) will impinge on our humanity, but beyond this, sooner or later we all come to realise that accumulating wealth is simply a distraction from deeper stuff. In this instance, only 10% of the population earn more than £50K pa, so clearly this level of attainment is not a realistic or sustainable goal for wider society.

There was a great programme on Radio 4 this lunchtime inviting comment and discussion on this issue. The whole range of issues came up-

The millionaire who was adamant that his money DID bring happiness, and freedom to live the life he wanted.

The person living on £5K pa on benefits, who found every day a struggle.

The person who gave up her £50K job as she was unhappy- and returned to doing simpler things.

Happiness is a difficult concept for introspective mercurial types like me. I am happiest when I do not need to think about happiness. When I am at rest with people I love, or doing something creative, or catching a echo of the voice of the Spirit…

I am pondering again  how we as Christians are called to a different way of being- living to the agenda set by Jesus. Lives of Spirit-fruitfulness, including that word ‘joy’, which is not the same thing as happiness.  Not sure I can define exactly how it is different though, or claim to a complete experience of joy.

But I do worry about how we Christians get seduced by the same selfish consumer-oriented agendas. I think that rather than a life style enhancement (do you remember that term moralistic therapeutic deism?) learning to live as a follower of Jesus seems to me to be about seeking to live in an open way, connected to others, and to find ways of giving/graciously receiving.

All this striving for more stuff, and the chasing after experiences that give life shape and meaning- it just does not fit well with the the ways of Jesus that we learn from the gospels.

And because faith without works is dead, then Jesus calls us on an adventure- a mission. Fulfilment and happiness may be discovered along the way, but they are not the object of life, rather they might be encountered as a by product- in the midst of all sorts of other things perhaps? Suffering, persecution, friendship, pain, joy, etc etc…

On the radio 4 programme, someone said this-

Happiness can be understood as like making a daisy chain with flowers that are close at hand

A bit trite, but I liked the simplicity of this.

You are where you are, surrounded by the people you are surrounded by, and equipped with the gifts and talents you are equipped with.

In this mix, is it possible there are also seeds of great happiness?

Epicurus, and a life lived for simple pleasures…

Time for a little ancient Greek philosophy…

I have been thinking about the things that motivate us to live fuller, deeper lives- the sorts of things that might encourage us to reach beyond the narrow things of our busy lives, and long for something better. It is kind of the theme of most of the stuff on this blog. For me this is a mingling of faith, family, community, art- poetry and music- and connection with the needs of others.

But a lot of the time, I find myself drawn into a different way of living, dominated by a desire to gather to myself stuff that gives life a degree of comfort and pleasure. It becomes about ME and MINE. Life becomes divorced from the way of Jesus, and the laughter of the Spirit.

Back to the Greeks, as there is nothing new under the sun (with the possible exception of velcro.)

Epicurus lived in a time when heroism was idealised- self sacrifice in the name of honour, public service, in service of the Gods. His culture was overshadowed by the whims and wishes of divine beings, as they looked down from Olympus and interfered with the ways of men. Epicurus and his followers suggested a different path- one that could be seen as similiar in many ways to our hopes for life in the West…

It propounded an ethic of individual pleasure as the sole or chief good in life. Hence, Epicurus advocated living in such a way as to derive the greatest amount of pleasure possible during one’s lifetime, yet doing so moderately in order to avoid the suffering incurred by overindulgence in such pleasure.

The greatest good was to seek modest pleasures in order to attain a state of tranquility and freedom from fear (ataraxia) as well as absence of bodily pain (aponia) through knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of our desires. The combination of these two states is supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form.

Lawbreaking was counseled against because of both the shame associated with detection and the punishment it might bring. Living in fear of being found out or punished would take away from pleasure, and this made even secret wrongdoing inadvisable. To the Epicureans, virtue in itself had no value and was beneficial only when it served as a means to gain happiness.

Friendship was encouraged because it was personally beneficial.

Death should not be feared- it is merely the end of all things- on their tombstones, Epicureans were known to have inscribed- I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind.

The universe is infinite and eternal, and that events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space.

I have to say that something about Epicureanism depresses the hell out of me. This is perhaps because it is so empty- so self seeking. Is this it? Is this all that we are about- the carving out of a life of modest pleasure, and avoidance of pain?

Perhaps for many of us, this is enough.

Many of us spend half a life time trying to achieve this ideal, then the rest trying to defend it.

Jesus was less interested in happiness, but talked about JOY. For him Joy is born in us- we do not make it or earn it or capture it. Joy rises up in the most unlikely of places, in spite of pain, discomfort, and loss. It is related to living a life that is connected to the deeper purposes of God- the ways of love. The ways of service. The walk of the humble.

C S Lewis said this- “I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy.”

Life is here- then gone.

And in the midst of the thing is such great joy. Let us not miss it.

Measuring the well being of society…

Interesting discussion at the end of the ‘T0day Programme’ on Radio 4 this morning about how we might measure the progress and value added to members of society. You can listen to the clip here.

It describes how Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has been asked to report to French President Sarkozy- and has pointed in the direction of sustainability and well being (happiness.)

joseph stiglitz

In the wake of the collapse of economic systems around the world, this is a common theme- old macro economic measures like Gross Domestic Product seem to have let us down. Measuring our prosperity and ability to acquire goods and services does not give us a reliable way to measure the worth of society- or the degree to which those of us within it live satisfied and fulfilled lives.

I think that we people of faith are called to be fully aware that this life we are given is precious, and to celebrate all that is good and beautiful within it. We Christians live as disciples of Jesus, whose had a whole different set of priorities…

We live in a time when something vital about the human experience has been somehow distanced from us by an empire whose culture (and very economic survival) is driven by a chasing after STUFF- ever more and more stuff to fill in the void.

We are none of us immune form the powers of the empire we live within. I just bought a new camera. It is a posh SLR that will take images that are much sharper, much richer. But I have a camera already that takes a lot of the photos on this blog. Cameras are TOOLS, and to have a better tool is no crime. But will it make me happier- or life deeper and more meaningful? Of course not. But the empire- this would try to convince me otherwise- and for a while, I even believe that it will too.

The radio 4 piece makes a point about happiness- which has been a theme on this blog before (See here for example.) My day job as a mental health manager brings me constantly into contact with issues of happiness and mental wellbeing. We are in the middle of planning a redesigned mental health service for Argyll, and one of the key government documents we relate to is this one- ‘Towards a mentally flourishing Scotland.‘ It makes interesting reading from a spiritual point of view- digging into how we might create opportunities for people to find satisfaction and build community as a prescription for health- both mental and physical.

I am just reading this book- Rob Bell’s ‘Jesus wants to save Christians.’

jesus wants to save christians

The book is a journey through the Bible, retelling the story of our human journey. Bell talks about the earliest stories from Genesis- the first family of Adam, Eve and their children Cain and Abel. And of how Cain and Abel argue over land and the acquisition of STUFF- marking the descent of humanity from simple subsistence towards more complex economic systems based around the possession of land, and the means to produce more than what is immediately needed in order to sell and barter for other goods.

You could say that this was the rise of humanity, and also potentially the seed of our destruction.

We moved from dependence and vulnerability- to independence and risk aversion.

We moved from community- to individualism and self reliance.

We moved from the need to follow the seasons and live within the natural environment- to the need for central heating, air conditioning, and ever more energy to sustain it.

We moved from a nomadic existence – to being anchored below the weight of what we own.

We moved from a need for God- to the need to manage God to make him fit the lives we now follow.

Could this be the prescription for fulfillment and happiness?




Connection to the earth that made us.

Living simply as pilgrims.

Living spiritually, in search of God.

What might society be like then?

Happiness and Ken Loach

Michaela and I have just watched the Ken Loach film ‘Happy go lucky’

If you have seen any of Loach’s other films, you will know roughly what to expect- beautifully filmed characterisations in intimate detail- with improvised scripts and wonderful acting. This film was no exception. Loach has this way of making you squirm uncomfortably, whilst you laugh indulgently, and in fully sympathy with the characters in all their very human flaws and failings. His films can be bleak, but somehow also kind, and life afirming.

This one follows the life of the main character- the wonderful Poppy, a teacher, whose niceness almost verges on the psychotic. But you come to love her even as you wince at her dizziness.

I heard Loach being interviewed about this film on release, along with a wider discussion about the nature of happiness, both as an individual, and in the collective. This is the source material for this film…

The research basis for the power of happiness is pretty compelling. Here is a quote from a BBC article which is well worth checking out.

According to Professor Diener the evidence suggests that happy people live longer than depressed people.”In one study, the difference was nine years between the happiest group and the unhappiest group, so that’s a huge effect. Cigarette smoking can knock a few years off your life, three years, if you really smoke a lot, six years.So nine years for happiness is a huge effect.”

Happiness seems to have almost magical properties. We have not got proof, but the science suggests it leads to long life, health, resilience and good performance.

Scientists work by comparing people’s reported happiness and a host of other factors such as age, sex, marital status, religion, health, income, unemployment and so on.

In survey after survey involving huge groups of people, significant correlations between happiness and some other factors are repeated. At the moment scientists cannot prove causation, whether for example people are healthy because they are happy, or whether people are happy because they are healthy. However, psychologists have been able to identify some very strong links.

Standard of living has increased dramatically and happiness has increased not at all
Professor Daniel Kahneman, University of Princeton.

There seems to be a strange truth in this research- if you are happy, if you set your life towards good and positive things- if you seek the good in people around you, and look to bring it out- if you spend time with your friends and love well- if you refuse to give up hope for the world around you, and choose to emphasise the good news rather than the bad.

These things will transform life. Even extend it.

This is not the same thing as living under the positive police, and is certainly no promise that you will not be hurt along the way.

So, lets all be Poppys. If not Polyannas.

It seems to me to have something of the Kingdom of God about it…

It is not easy for some of us mind.