It’s A Fine Life …

I now have an emotional response to hot water. I’ve spent so much time avoiding using hot water straight from the taps that sinking into a hot bath almost reduces me to tears: my shoulders relax, my body disappears under the water and I feel myself well up. I just had the feeling again as I switched on the central heating: a mixture of excitement and a brief desire to cry.

Chaplin is now on the window sill above the radiator and his softened face and relaxed ears would suggest he is having a similar emotional response.

A very good friend of mine has given me some money for Christmas: it is enough to pay my gas debt and enjoy some festive drinks with other friends. It is unexpected, unrequested help that will make all the difference.

The generosity of friends is something you can’t buy. It isn’t something you experience more or less depending on your earnings. It isn’t even something you can expect because you’re in work or not expect because you’re unemployed.

That said, I think Cameron’s satisfaction survey is a crock. Initial findings of this “well-being survey” might show that Brits are smiling through the misery of a global economic crisis but it doesn’t mean we’re unaffected.

According to the BBC, “The survey of 4,200 people asked respondents to rank from nought to 10 how satisfied they were […] 76% rated themselves as seven out of 10.”

In case you’re confused 10 meant completely satisfied and zero meant not at all.

The survey costing £2m was conducted over the spring and summer and will lead to more detailed research to be used in Whitehall as part of Cameron’s efforts to develop a “happiness index” that will run alongside more traditional measures of the economic mood. This is despite Cameron’s saying of his own research idea, “You cannot capture happiness on a spreadsheet any more than you can bottle it – and if anyone was trying to reduce the whole spectrum of human happiness into one snapshot statistic I would be the first to roll my eyes.”

Reports of the survey have led to photos in the media of old women laughing alongside young women, women laughing and hugging and pretty women grinning like buffoons: the results suggests women and pensioners are happiest.

The peer, who founded of the Action for Happiness movement to promote well-being, Lord Layard, said policymakers could use the data to tackle the pain of recession: “We know from other European countries that this is sensitive to business cycles and in recessions life satisfaction drops.”

According to the Guardian the science of wellbeing is, while now fashionable, certainly nothing new.

What also isn’t new is the idea that poor people are happy to like or lump it. Forget the relentless misery of Eastenders – the poor working class are always cheerful, with wide, gap-toothed smiles despite the cold, the empty bellies and bare feet: give us a piano and we burst into song. And those children in the Poor Kids documentary need only a bed to jump up and down on to forget that their bedrooms are wet with mould.

This ridiculous stereotype of the poor is why, perhaps, John Jost, a graduate from the Stanford School of Business, considered how such images can reinforce the status quo. His research is far more interesting than Cameron’s costly con.

It suggests that “benevolent stereotypes like […] “poor people are the salt of the earth” ascribe complementary value to all groups in a system, including members of disadvantaged groups”. Jost says:

“They are appealing in part because they satisfy the desire to perceive existing forms of social and economic arrangements as fair, legitimate, and justified.”

If we’re reassured that pensioners are happy (despite increasing energy bills leaving then sitting in the cold and dark), that children are happy (despite going to school hungry) and that women are happy (despite fretting about finding childcare in order to go to work) then we no longer feel anxious about vulnerable members of society.

It is, ultimately, extraordinarily selfish – and is Cameron’s true plan: to stop us from recognising and caring that there are some seriously vulnerable members of society who need to be helped by the state.

Jost studied the “system-justifying” effects of stereotypes pertaining to economic inequality, including “poor but happy,” “rich but miserable,” “poor but honest,” and “rich but dishonest” stereotypes. Participants in his experiments were asked for their perceptions of the status quo and those who had been exposed to complementary stereotypes were more likely to see the existing social and political system as legitimate and just. Jost said,

“These findings demonstrate the existence of a justification process that is new to the social justice literature.”

While I agree that owning things does not bring happiness, that joy can’t be measured by a bank balance and consumerism is not contentment – we still need warm, well-lit, comfortable homes and jobs so we can buy food and clothes.

A convenient stereotype won’t keep pensioners warm –  25,000 die from cold each year and energy prices of up to 18% untackled will only add to this number. It won’t feed children whose parents are on benefits. And it won’t find work for the 2.6 million unemployed or for the nation’s young people who have been thrown aside like dirty dishrags.

I can also honestly say that knowing my corner shop now stocks Marques de Caceres for £8.99 and I can have a bottle this weekend has cheered me up no end.

One thought on “It’s A Fine Life …

  1. Great post! Especially loved this line: “The generosity of friends is something you can’t buy.” So true! I mention this sentiment often in my blog, too. I gave up my apartment to save money and pay off debts and student loans, so I completely relate to your post… and how people are often surprisingly generous (like in housing me, for instance).

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