Terence Blacker: The new science of happiness

We are but a smile away from a government happiness initiative
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The Independent Online

In one of the odder, more arresting Shakespearean performances of recent times, Kevin Spacey plays Richard II in Trevor Nunn's new production at the Old Vic like a man racked by uncertainty, who keeps the world at bay with a twitchy, self-mocking irony. This contemporary interpretation has cameramen on stage while a screen plays back soundbites from key speeches, intercutting them with real footage of riots and royal occasions. It is Shakespeare played for an age of self-consciousness and publicity.

Nunn is skilful at finding a way into contemporary concerns through a classic text. Spacey's Richard, a man caught between his public role and private reality, would fit in easily at a party conference, at a media awards ceremony or in the green room for a TV chat show. Image is everything here and, beside it, the mess and conflict of everyday life can bring only disappointment.

In the world outside the Old Vic, there is a direct connection between the public lives of the famous, well spun by the court of the media, and that great new obsession of our time, happiness. For centuries, it has been a subject which has busied philosophers, novelists and the framers of political constitutions. Now it seems that it preoccupies an army of experts - statisticians, members of think-tanks and entire academic disciplines. Are we happy? In what ways is our happiness declining? How can we improve the happiness statistics?

This, according to the former Labour adviser Richard Layard, who published a book on the subject earlier this year, is "a new science". Its findings should be taken seriously by government. Gordon Brown, it was proposed, should establish a happiness index to be placed beside, perhaps in front of, the figures of the Gross Domestic Product. We are but a smile away from a government happiness initiative, perhaps even the creation of a Happiness Tsar whose job will be the urgent implementation of joy, particularly in communities under-achieving in contentment league tables.

Are you happy? Many of us would think that to be able to answer this question in an acceptably clear-cut way would reveal one to be either a self-pitying moaner or a smug git, but the new science knows better. Layard's book argues that studies of brain activity in select social groups should help to shape future legislation and policy. Politicians should set about making each of us a happier, more satisfied person.

There is, as it happens, no shortage of happiness surveys. Most of them agree that - surprise! - money is helpful but not essential. There is very little difference, according to the experts, between the happiness of multi-millionaires on the Forbes rich list and Masai herdsmen. It has also been established that - again, hardly a shock - people are less generally satisfied with their lives than they used to be. Mysteriously, the year 1976 has emerged as a peak of British contentment, after which there has been something of a slide.

This week, the happiness industry brought marginally more cheerful news. A survey into the contentment ratings of 30 countries (from which, for some reason, countries like Sudan, Iraq and Zimbabwe were excluded) has revealed that Britain is equal fifth with Canada when it comes to happiness. A rather impressive 32 per cent of us claimed to be very happy, some way behind the smiling fools of Australia, America, Egypt and India but, globally speaking, at an acceptable level of good cheer. We were apparently badly let down by gloomy people in their fifties and by a particularly miserable performance (23 per cent on the happiness rating) by those living in Wales.

Much of this is fairly silly, even if the survey's list of happy countries provides a useful corrective to Richard Layard's questionable argument that citizens of socially generous countries tend to be happier than slaves to untrammelled capitalism. But behind the global surveys and the gruesome idea that personal happiness should become a concern of government, there is something to be said for this particular form of self-consciousness.

Next month, BBC2 will be showing a series called Making Slough Happy, in which six experts in the field of cheering people up will be let loose on a group of 50 residents from Slough. The emphasis here is on a new school of therapy called "positive psychology". Its proponents accentuate the positive in individuals, building on characteristics of sociableness, generosity, or wit. Happiness, John Updike said once in an interview, was a matter of appreciating moments of contentment or joy as they happened rather than later in a spirit of wistful nostalgia, and it is this idea, presumably, that is being conveyed to the human guinea-pigs of Slough.

The culture that is all around us reflects psychological uncertainty and a certain hard-eyed cruelty towards others. If a new Ronnie Barker were to emerge in 2005, it is difficult to imagine his type of humour - generous, easygoing, middle-class, happy - making sense to an audience used to the knowingness and cynicism of Extras and Nighty Night. Contemporary film and fiction are mesmerised by contemporary forms of unhappiness and dysfunction. Against that background, the idea of making a small, personal effort towards happiness - counting one's blessings, as it used to be known - would seem a rather sensible form of self-therapy.