Happiness and Optimism for 2011

We are now in the second decade of the 21st century.

It certainly sounds quite impressive. The future is now!

In an attempt to leave the misfortunes of 2008-2010 behind, several countries have inspired massive social unrest with ‘austerity measures’ – cuts to social programmes and civil service pay that can no longer be sustained by the international equivalent of Mastercard (which is apparently China).

This is on top of the riots and demonstrations inspired by police violence in France, a threefold increase in university fees in the UK, certified nutbar Silvio Berlusconi, the G20 in Toronto, and, um the Lakers (to select only a few – google ‘2010 demostrations’ and ‘2010 riots’).

Hilariously, and ‘look! The Goodyear blimp!’-ily, the UK Conservative/Liberal Democrat government has decided to start measuring ‘gross national happiness’, (just like that shining beacon of justice and democracy, Bhutan) rather than the terribly outmoded ‘gross national product’.

What’s funny (aside from the blatant attempt at misdirection), is that the imbalance inherent in the current austerity measures is almost guaranteed to increase unhappiness.

Because, you see, scientifically speaking, the wealth of a country has no real effect on people’s individual happiness. Moreover, income beyond a certain sustaining rate has no long-term effect on happiness, it just temporarily boosts it.

People are happiest in egalitarian environments, where there is a smaller gap between the income of the richest and poorest members of a society. This is mitigated somewhat by the fact that, in societies where social mobility is considered high and meritocratic, there is a greater level of contentment with income disparity. (Remember that perception is not necessarily a reflection of truth)

In either case, the common element is the perception of fairness.

From the age of about 3, every child is told that life isn’t fair. However, we learn just as quickly that we, as individuals and as groups, can be fair. That is, after all, the premise for every justice system in the world. The success of said attempt at fairness is often dubious at best, but it is something for which we, as humans, strive. Life isn’t fair, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be.

So will 2011 bring greater happiness, now that governments are attempting (or pretending) to measure it?

Well, if the key factor is equality, probably not. The cuts to national programmes make life considerably more difficult for those lower on the income totem pole (single mothers, the physically and mentally challenged or disabled, children). David Cameron’s Big Society so far is hobbling a lot of federal institutions and charities that supported the little guys. I don’t think that’s going to make anyone happy.

Science has shown that the rich folks who get to keep whatever percent of their income won’t really notice, the businesses that get to keep a greater percent of their profits won’t feel anything, because they are institutions and don’t actually have feelings, and in times of financial difficulty tend to retrench rather than reinvest so they can’t boost people’s happiness by employing them, and the banks, the source of all the trouble, are already back to playing Russian roulette with everyone’s finances, giving gigantic bonuses, and refusing to loan the money they have received free from the taxpayer to revive the economy.

The other difficulty is that as individuals, we are terrible at gauging what will make us happy.

I suppose it’s only fair that governments be as obtuse on a national level as people are individually. However, there’s a lot more science on what makes groups of people happy.

Then again, there’s also a lot of science on why people maintain and defend their pre-existing beliefs despite significant evidence to the contrary (I’m looking at you, climate change deniers).

One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to stop being so pessimistic.

If it’s backed by science, it counts as realism, right?

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