Friday, April 22, 2011

Walking on sunshine

How tickled Ken Dodd must be to discover the Government is trying to get us all to sing his old hit “Happiness”.

The Diddymen in Downing Street are spending £2 million trying to find out what makes us happy.

What with war, unemployment, cuts, chaos in the NHS and the blubbing of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, you’d think they had enough to worry about.

But be warned, this Ken Dodd politics boils down to a new way for the Government to control how we live.

They will conclude we are happy if we are healthy and therefore they’ll order us to stop smoking, drinking and eating the “wrong” food.

Actually it’s none of their business how we live our lives. Governments cannot make us happy.

Their job is to keep us secure and reasonably prosperous. The rest is up to us.

Luckily we don’t take this nonsense terribly seriously. Responses to the Office for National Statistics survey of what makes us happy include looking at pretty girls, better pies, cheese and tomato toasties with ketchup on the side and better TV programmes.

Even being allowed to smoke in pubs would make some people happier, it seems.

It’s impossible to measure happiness or even define what it is.They can’t accurately measure Britain’s balance of trade, the inflation rate, the level of economic growth, the crime rate, how many people are unemployed or what the number of illegal immigrants in this country really is.

We treat the statistics as Gospel but they’re not. They are approximate stabs at coming up with something roughly near the mark.

You’d think adding up numbers would be simple but if they can’t manage that how can they possibly measure something as nebulous as “happiness”?

What is it? How long does it last? Is it the same as contentment? Is it a one-off emotion sparked by something nice happening to you – or is it a state of mind?

I was happy last week when we went away to Cornwall for a few days and walked the dogs on a beautiful, near-deserted beach in glorious spring sunshine. Does that mean I am happy?

I doubt it – if only because there are so many things our Government does, from needlessly “reforming” the NHS to madly waging war, which make me angry.

If you took all the advice on the internet, you’d end up miserably confused.

A quick search shows that – according to “scientists” – happiness is contagious and spreads among family and friends; the more we try to be happy the more miserable we become; the colour blue makes us happy; money does buy happiness; no it doesn’t; happiness is earning more than £50,000 a year; being rich makes you unhappy.

Having a fourth child makes you unhappy; fathers talking to their teenage sons make them happy; you’re happy if you earn more than your friends; you’re happy if you eat pizza in front of the TV and live in Norwich.

You can be happy if you don’t marry a neurotic, don’t worry about your career, to go church and stay thin; or if you sleep six hours a night, enjoy four shopping sprees a month and take two holidays a year.

This whole nonsense began, of course, in America, land of the neurotic, where “the pursuit of happiness” is written into the Constitution.

It’s been imported by David Cameron’s personal guru, Steve Hilton, and no doubt when their happiness report comes out we’ll be told we’re all actually quite cheerful really.

It wasn’t happiness but “the economy, stupid” which Bill Clinton saw as the one and only issue when he was running for President.

He realised the job of a Government was limited to creating a stable society we can build our lives around.

It’s still the economy, stupid. Our financial well-being has a direct effect on our happiness. Having a job, a decent income, a roof over our heads and enough to eat – Governments can help us achieve these things.

When the economy goes wrong, the most worthwhile contribution politicians can make to the sum of human happiness is to repair it.

But beyond that, what makes life worthwhile is not in the gift of any politician and they shouldn’t pretend it is.

They don’t choose our friends and loved ones. They don’t give us sunshine on deserted beaches. They don’t give us nice sandwiches or enjoyable telly.

I’m all in favour of spreading a little happiness. A new organsiation called Action for Happiness wants to do just that.

Yet I can’t help thinking this isn’t about encouraging random acts of kindness but about controlling how we live.

Especially when you know the Government has a “Behavioural Insight Team” aiming to find “­intelligent ways to encourage people to make better choices for themselves” about diet, obesity and alcohol.

When he became Tory leader, David Cameron told the party faithful to “let sunshine win the day” which presumably makes him and Nick Clegg the Morecambe and Wise of British politics.

Even so, they may like to know that Ken Dodd’s greatest hit was not “Happiness” but “Tears”.

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