Sarah Sands: We are all hardwired to happiness

Even gloomy news cannot bring us down
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Two kindly looking grey-haired men of reassuring bulk and knowledge have just frightened the life out of us. Sir Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, suggests that we are on a pitch-black ocean and there is not a man or woman alive who knows where we are heading. Sir David Attenborough adds that the ocean is rising to catastrophic levels and the planet looks about as secure as the eurozone. Meanwhile, Iceland is ready to blow. What next? If Father Christmas is in the public sector we could really be in trouble.

After a week of unwavering gloom, the results of a Government "happiness" survey conclude that 7 out of 10 people are pretty content. Newspapers printed this fact in a spirit of satire. How can the public possibly be happy on the threshold of economic Armageddon? Did they not witness the vampiric face and monotonous voice of George Osborne, whose autumn statement heralded a Narnian endless winter? Are we all idiots?

"Happiness is a mystery, like religion, and it should never be rationalised," said G K Chesterton.

There are some points of consensus. It is a great deal easier to be happy if you and the people you love are healthy. I have seen parents whose children are suffering have a stab at cheerfulness, but it is an effort of will and usually a temporary distraction. A degree of material comfort is helpful, although not a guarantee of happiness. We take liberty for granted, but its absence is spirit destroying.

The surprising thing about the government survey is that employment, always cited as a prerequisite for happiness, is not an overwhelming influence. Almost seven out of 10 people who were unemployed also declared themselves quite happy. Retired people are particularly happy. Another theory-busting statistic is that women are notably happy, despite polls showing that they are David Cameron's most passionate critics.

The survey implies that people are either in denial, or tremendously resilient. Maybe the first is necessary to achieve the second. You can only contemplate the apocalypse for so long. During the Cold War, a generation braced itself for nuclear war. After 11 September, we dreaded stateless terrorism. For the past three years, we have been preparing for economic collapse. As soon as we become accustomed to a threat, we learn to risk manage it.

However dreadful the backdrop, the intimate pleasures of our lives survive. We find our own small but harmonious narratives. The economist Daniel Kahneman shows in his new book Thinking, Fast and Slow, how our minds instinctively crave coherence and react against the random. For instance, here are two triads of words. Sleep, mail, switch; salt, deep, foam. The second sequence makes us happy, because of the coherent thematic association of the sea. The first contains no pleasurable connections.

I read the stories of disaster and rage in a newspaper the other day, but then lingered appreciatively over an amateur photograph of a sunrise in the English countryside. I absorbed the pleasure of nature while merely acknowledging the significance of the economic news.

This might explain the apparent contradiction of women's political dissatisfaction and their private contentment. Since they are at the heart of the family, they are full of concern about employment, health and education. They also know politicians have no powers in their domestic sphere. To Einstein, happiness was a table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and violins. Simple provisions, rich spiritual or emotional fulfilment. Economists can howl like wolves, but they do not touch our capacity for private happiness.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'