Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Don't worry, be happy...

Dead Ringers did a wonderful sketch last night in which they parodied David Cameron's opinion statements on 'the big issues of the day', suggesting Tory targets over the summer would include disrespectful shoppers who don't put 'Next Customer Please' signs on supermarket conveyor belts. Alongside rap music and the now infamous chocolate oranges, Cameron also suggested we needed to focus on GNH (Gross National Happiness) and not just money (like Bhutan where the government promotes freedom, ooops, happiness by deciding the people of Bhutan shouldn't be able to watch wrestling).

This has generated a plehora of newspaper articles and even a TV series suggesting that self-absorbed women trying to 'have it all' in a capitalist 'me' culture are making themselves unhappy, high earners are unhappy and stressed, and working for a French Telecoms company will destroy your life. All very interesting but is this 'the truth'? Should we all give up wanting a promotion, saving for liposuction, and go and live in a yurt? There are several problems...

a) Being hyper-competitive is generated by our Affluenza ridden society:

We are suffering an epidemic of what I term the Affluenza Virus — putting a high value on money, possessions, appearances (physical and social) and celebrity.

So all these viagra-touting executives would be much happier and less stressed if they stopped watching Big Brother and Porsche commercials, and took over nappy-changing duties. You can find out if you have a Type-A personality here. Doing anything worthwhile is a struggle, whether it be bringing up a child, running a French telecoms company... or erecting an eco-yurt. It's stressful. It's challenging. You feel a great sense of achievement if it goes well. On the downside - if you attempt something more complex than walking out of your own front door then you have a probability of failure and there's a 100% likelihood there might be a difficult, abjectly miserable bit where you expect to screw up big-time. 'Type-A' personalities get off on challenging themselves and achieving things. It's nothing to do with capitalism. If you stranded a group of French telecom executives on a desert island with only a deckchair then when you returned they wouldn't be soaking up the sun whilst listening to Bob Dylan. They'd have turned the deckchair into a sledge and be attempting to climb the nearest volcano... And it's the ex-executive women who have bought into the 'you'd be deeply fulfilled and unstressed if you rejected the expectations of the capitalist system and looked after children full-time' hype who become mega-stressed, mega-competitive Queen Bees. Because if you're not competing in one sphere... you're only going to channel that tendency someplace else.

b ) High social expectations are bad for society

Aspiring to have:

full-time job, and children, and a good relationship, and friends, and a tidy house, and be thin, and wear the right clothes, and eat in the right restaurants, and possibly be having a really sexy affair as well, complete with suitable underwear

Is apparently a bad thing. So perhaps women should give up aspiring to be anything and instead accept all they can hope to achieve is working part-time, being fat, sexually unfilled and having really grotty greyish underwear with fraying elastic. Low social expectations and acceptance of personal or socially imposed limitations is what's called a 'caste system'. It is where everyone accepts 'their place' and is content in it. Smashing such a system is the basis of countless Hollywood movies. For a perfect example, try Antz [Z: 'I feel so insignificant' Therapist: 'Congratulations, you've really made a breakthrough' Z: 'I have?' Therapist: 'Yes, you ARE insignificant'... pan out over billions of identical ants hauling dirt]. Valuing aspiration may be a cultural construct but it does mean that people don't accept the unacceptable. Applied productively, dreaming of being a better person in a better place is the driver of innovation and progress. Someone dreamt of antibiotics, the wheel, and still dream of a cure for cancer. So the problem isn't that people are aspiring to too much... But it may be that some of them are aspiring to the 'wrong' things. But perhaps that's a price we have to pay for the benefits of aspiring to something.

c ) Type 'A' personalities are a disease:

It is satisfying to sit in the chaffeur-driven car; the sadness is that these personalities might be happier if they were humble enough, or had enough insight to know that time spent in the consulting-room chair would be more productive.

By which it's assumed that there *is* a cure and that if there was, we'd be all better off if we were all phlegmatic, laid back and sanguine. Given that anything worth doing in life is a struggle... then we'd all be less stressed and some of us would be 'happier', but we may as well write off visiting Mars, solving world poverty or curing cancer. All these things came to us curtesy of people who were very driven, very focused and struggling. They had breakdowns, sometimes they died for their work. Would the world really have been a better place if Marie Curie had decided she felt happier teaching yoga?

d ) People expect too much because they are self-absorbed and part of a superficial consumer culture.

Again, probably somewhat overstated. During WWII, people didn't expect too much out of life. But this wasn't because they were getting down with their inner No Logo groupie. It was because they had to look like extras out of Dr Who several times a week whilst hiding under a hedge. And that was just going to school. Staying alive for several days in a row was a major achievement. Perhaps women would be less obsessed with breast enlargement if we started a world war or banned disinfectant, but given the choice I'd rather stick with the trauma of having to decide if Felicity Kendal really has had a face lift.

So there we have it...
  • 'People' in the 21st century (as written about by newspapers) aspire to be beautiful and rich, because they don't have to aspire to staying alive until next week. This is a good thing.
  • These people have aspirations that are beyond what they can achieve. This makes them strive for things, is more likely to generate social mobility and is a good thing.
  • Some people are exceptionally driven which causes them to become stressed and periodically unhappy as they aspire to achieve. Some of these people have changed the world for the better. Others have just sold us more toothpaste. Even if this is a product of an unhappy childhood and even if some of these people are selling us toothpaste, it's not something as a society we should want to change.
Perhaps we should accept that there are some pursuits far more rewarding than the pursuit of happiness.

Comments on this post started a nasty blog war. The offending comments and responses have been deleted, and further comments are closed

14 Comments:

  • At 8:06 pm , Blogger Political Teenager said...

    It will be interesting based on these ideas what will make up the next conservative manifesto.

     
  • At 11:34 pm , Anonymous Gavin Ayling said...

    It's all mood music!

    One of the real challenges facing Britain RE: happiness is to try to understand why French people work shorter hours but are as productive (or more productive for each hour worked). Without resorting to heavy-handed legislation, how can we stop people from feeling the need to work longer hours while simultaneously not actually adding to the economy?!

    Cameron's got the right target in sight, it's just a matter of whether he thinks that the role of government is to make people happy, or whether he has another way in mind. I hope it's the latter.

    Oh, and thanks for the link, reciprocated.

     
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  • At 8:36 am , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

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