Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Spare me from Whitehall's well-being committee

The pursuit of happiness is itself an invitation to perpetual unhappiness

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January is the bitterest month, bringing vast bills, dull climes, expanded girths, formless fears about the future, broken or blocked drains, colds and coughs, dead gardens, a fog of envy as others inevitably do better, stupid, unnecessary rows and much worse. So it is good to know that we now have a heap of devoted civil servants working to increase the nation's quotient of happiness. The Whitehall Well-being Working Group (W3G) is seeking innovative ways to make citizens of these isles feel less grumpy and more cheerful.

A report written for this jovial W3G by Paul Dolan, professor of economics at the Imperial College, who aims to quantify a reliable unit of joy, has come up with a list of what makes us light-up - long marriages and lots of sex, apparently, walks, gardening and gossiping over your fence with a friendly neighbour. Oh, and divorce and grey rain make us sad.

I have a few good ideas of my own. Millions of us would experience a rush of real pleasure if the PM were to humbly apologise for his deceptions, immoral war and general corruption he has brought into politics. Such a confession might make us feel less soiled as a nation. Even more of us would be thrilled to bits to have greedy business vultures, overpaid company directors and City billionaires denied offshore tax chests where they hide their loot so they don't have to pay their dues to this country.

Well-being in many localities would shoot up if bars and clubs refused to tank customers up to excess.Then there is that dreadful menace: gigantic trucks day and night on our roads (outside my flat as it happens). And our pain is nothing compared with those who live near airports and now have several times as many flights jetting past them. A local hospital that does what it says on the label or decent schools would transform the pessimism of countless citizens.

A recent YouGov poll showed Britons caught in a web of confused feelings. Sixty-three per cent of Britons seem to feel good about their lives - we are, after all, richer than ever before, even the poorest among us. Yet, only 7 per cent said it had been a good year for the country. They detest the environment, the society, the country as it has changed. Respondents also said they were depressed by the lack of probity and honesty in public life.

It would be a waste of time bringing these to the attention of W3G, which is apparently not concerned about big policies and politics that run down personal optimism. Failure, thereby, is already stamped on this pathetic endeavour.

The pursuit of happiness is itself an invitation to perpetual unhappiness, that too is a lesson this earnest body will have to humbly accept at the end of their fruitless quest. How many times have you been to a fab restaurant, candles on the table, champagne in the bucket, dressed to the nines, marking some birthday or anniversary, when you feel you have to muster up this inner buzz and there is only gloom roaming in your heart?

This weekend I was on a Tube next to two red-eyed, exhausted Africans with those huge zipped-up plastic bags. I surmised they were poor exiles from their homelands, selling cheap things on streets, as they do now all around Europe, because they have to, to keep themselves and their families alive. What they go through, how they are despised. I felt my mood fall into despair for them. And then this old white couple started chatting to them, just naturally, without excessive curiosity. By the time we reached Hammersmith the men were grinning. Then one got up and gave the couple a wooden giraffe: "For Christmas, bit late, I know. God bless you." The whole carriage, for 10 minutes, was infused with warmth.

A friend gave my daughter Danny Wallace's Random Acts of Kindness which contains suggestions on how to do exactly that. Buy chocolate and give it to the vendor to eat, that kind of thing. My young girl finds the book such a delight. It connects her to strangers; it animates the politics of justice and makes her into a social being. Living in a full society, my child is seeking the good society gone missing.

Thatcher started it and Blair has taken the baton, dashing to promote greater private wealth. Neither has taken responsibility for the damage of limitless acquisition on the environment, on shared values and care, the social space and collective spirit, the essence of humanity. A hundred Gucci handbags are no comfort when your son is beaten up outside his expensive school or when your inner self is breaking.

Politicians, bureaucrats and misguided academics distracted by this latest mindless New Labour initiative have deepened the January blues - or, in their jargon, lowered my GWB (measurable general well-being). Yours too?

y.alibhai-brown@yahoo.co.uk

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