The Government gave us all food for thought last week when it finally published the first data from its long-awaited report on happiness. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) interviewed 80,000 people for its National Well-being Programme, and now it can tell us with some certainty that, on a happiness scale from 0 to 10, people in the UK are, on average, 7.6 happy.
The good news is that three-quarters of people are at least 7 out of 10 happy; the bad news is that divorce will drag you down to only about a 6.5. The even worse news is that this is real news and not just a satire dreamed up by a horrible cynic. And there was I thinking that I was having a dream about Gulliver's Travels, in which the people in charge are financing plots to extract sunbeams from cucumbers while all of their people starve.
The Government presumably intends its report to have some sort of practical application, so let's have a look at what we can learn from it. People in Northern Ireland were the most satisfied with their lives, scoring 7.6 compared with a rubbish 7.4 in England and Wales. Those in London and the West Midlands are the least satisfied and the most anxious (you'd be anxious if you had to rely on Transport for London every working day of your life).
Married couples are the most satisfied (that's "satisfied", not "self-satisfied"), scoring 7.7 compared with 7.5 for cohabitees, 7.3 for single people, 6.8 for widowed people and 6.6 for divorcees. And people with children believe that their lives are more worthwhile than those without. (Oh, really, you'd never know it to hear them go on about it.) Weirdly, people with two or four children feel more worthwhile than those with three or five, but having more than five does not increase feelings of worthfulness – merely feelings of tiredness, I am guessing.
Obviously, the Government wants us all to be happy, and says that the results of the survey will be used to influence national policy. So we can all do our bit by getting married, moving to Belfast and breeding as fast as we can, but only until we get to an even number. Oh yes, it would also help if we could have professional jobs, keep those jobs, and not be from Pakistan, according to the report. The ONS has yet to measure whether money, or the lack of it, has any effect on happiness, but I'm prepared to bet a million pounds that it does. I'll let you know whether it makes me any happier when I win. (Who am I kidding? I will lie, of course, otherwise you will all want a piece of my vast wealth.)
Don't get me wrong: I am all in favour of using science and analysis to confirm or disprove the ideas that we assume to be self-evident. I just don't think that it takes a professor of statistics to figure out that people are less anxious when they are in regular paid work and don't have to panic about where their next rent cheque is coming from, and I don't believe that a sample size of 80,000 contains enough people with more than five children to be statistically significant or even interesting.
The Government did something similar last year, when it set the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman to put an exact financial value on all the things that "we get for free from nature". "The value of biodiversity to social well-being" was £540m, she discovered. What does it mean?
Quantifying and measuring happiness is not a new idea: in recent memory it was done for the Blair government by Richard Layard and his Movement for Happiness; by the BBC in the 2005 programme Making Slough Happy; and in 1998 by Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, who set up the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania.
These studies seem consistently to find that happy people tend to be healthy, employed and in stable relationships. The more intelligent of them admit that there is a grey area around cause and effect.
Maybe I would be more impressed if I believed that the Government really intends to do anything as a result of this study. They could start, perhaps, by getting more people into paid jobs – and not only professors of statistics.
When shall we three meet again, Ma'am?
The Duchess of Cambridge has had to endure more social minefields than most women, and last week's trip to Fortnum & Mason with the Queen and Camilla must have been among the most challenging of all.
It's hard enough to choose an outfit for a day out with your step-mother-in-law and your husband's nanna; it must be all but impossible when the in-law is the Duchess of Cornwall, the nanna is Queen of England, and the poor dead mother who haunts them all was famously the most stylish woman ever to have put on a frock. Typically, Kate pulled it off with aplomb in a dark blue coat-dress that she apparently bought in the Bicester outlet village – an image that makes me smile, though I can't quite put my finger on why – though the photo of the three of them standing side by side looks like some awful depiction of the evolution of woman.
And how did The Daily Telegraph celebrate this sartorial triumph of the three royal women, jointly contemplating a regally crowned, tiered jubilee cake? Well, thanks to an unfortunate juxtaposition of stories, it ran a giant picture of them on its front page, above the headline: "Witchcraft threat to children".
Why we wonder about George
In The New Review this week, Jason Donovan recalls that suing The Face in 1992 for erroneously printing that he was gay was not "my greatest moment". He should have taken the approach last week of George Clooney when Advocate magazine asked him about continuing theories that he must be gay.
"The last thing you will see me do is jump up and down saying, 'These are lies!'" he said. "That would be unfair and unkind to my good friends in the gay community. I'm not going to let anyone make it seem like being gay is a bad thing.... Who does it hurt if someone thinks I'm gay?"
Diplomatic, smart, generous, handsome, unattached.... No wonder women gloomily assume he cannot be straight.
Accessory to the purrfect crime
This spring I face a classic animal lover's dilemma. I tidied the garden last weekend, and finally hung up two birdfeeders that have been in boxes since moving house in the autumn. At that time, by a complex process, I also acquired a cat who is very handsome but pathetic, and who has never caught a living thing in his life. Until the early hours of Wednesday morning.
At 5am, I was woken up by an overexcited tom with a very dead bird. Trust me: I feel awful. Rather than helping the declining bird population of London I have been luring innocent great tits to their deaths. Now that the birds are starting to breed, they need the generosity of sentimental gardeners, but what if Billy has developed a taste for blood?
Should I feed the birds at the risk of unwittingly feeding the cat, too; or let them all go hungry?
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