Photo: Kim Aldis
Vicrant Shabla is in the spring of his life, earns about 14.000£ per annum more than the average Britain and has a beautiful girlfriend. He is supposed to be happy. But as he glances with a searching look through the window and exhales cigarette smoke, his monotone voice breaks through the grey cloud: “I’m not happy in the UK. I want to leave this place.”
He does not seem to be the only one who feels like that: protesters are camping angrily outside St. Pauls Cathedral, youngsters let whole streets go up in flames and loot shops, and most digits are quite bleak as well. Suicide is the biggest killer of young men in London, one in 12 adolescents engages in self-harm, according to researchers, and Great Britain lingers in most well-being indexes somewhere in the middle field. According to these independent surveys people in Scandinavian countries are happier and people in East European countries are worse off.
Reasons for Unhappiness
Peter Kinderman, Professor of Clinical Psychology at University of Liverpool, says: “We should understand sustainable happiness as well-being since it encompasses more than just hedonistic happiness. The main factors are to develop your true self and to help society, which gives a meaning to live.”
This meaning is what Vicrant Shabla misses in life because he cannot see himself working in an office where he feels like fulfilling no purpose. “I want to create something I will be remembered for. I want to work to live and not live to work,” says Vicrant and looks impatiently at his new watch.
Maybe Vicrant is feeling something what the psychologist Erich Fromm called the “alienation of work”. While Karl Marx’s usage of the same expression, as the estrangement from the natural want of being the director of ones action, is true as well, Fromm meant a less power orientated detachment. According to Fromm many people find their own work in a capitalistic society as being an unnecessary mass product, which is not adding value to society.
Vicrant finished his BA just one and a half years ago, but he earns already 40.000£ a year. Much more than some of his fellow students who have to work at the Burger King now. Like most of the Western World, he initially thought that more money would make him happier, but that does not seem to be true. Already in the 70’s, Richard Easterlin, a professor in economics, found out that, after a relative wealth is reached, richer countries are not necessarily happier.
This supports what Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett write in their book The Spirit Level: Equality not prosperity of a nation makes a country and its people happy. The difference in equality would also explain why social-democratic countries like Sweden are happier and Eastern European countries are not.
Many people such as Professor Kinderman and Dr. Felicia Huppert, Professor of Psychology at Cambridge and member of the Advisory Forum on Measuring National Well-being, see one of the main reasons for the recent riots in England in the unhappiness due to inequality. “People think they have to achieve a certain statues through material goods and fame in order to be happy. They don’t know better, since that is what the media and our society tells them daily,” says Professor Huppert.
Although Vicrant was against the riots, he understands why the rioters were so envious and greedy. “They are frustrated that the can’t have what the upper class has and that they can’t change anything about it. Even me: my money is never enough, no matter how much I earn,” says Vicrant and lights another cigarette.
But there are also other reasons that make Vicrant unhappy. He grew up in a broken home and sees his family rarely, since his too occupied with work and the travel distances are too long. Neither is it easy for him to make new friends. “People only care for themselves here, they do not even greet you,” says Vicrant.
According to Professor Huppert the social environment is very important for well-being, too. Health, low corruption, social trust, relative wealth and social relationships are crucial. Unsurprisingly Scandinavian countries perform very well in these points, while the UK does not. Professor Huppert adds: “It is difficult to be happy nowadays: Since people have to work longer, relationships suffer and physical exercise becomes less.”
The only country that officially measured happiness until recently was Bhutan. Now the UK government is measuring the national well-being for the first time and is expected to reveal the results in early 2012. “It is a groundbreaking idea that could change our society profoundly for the better”, says Professor Kinderman.
Professor Huppert agrees: “That is the only way for the government to know how happy people are and to react accordingly. This could influence their politics and propel them to promote the right values.” Professor Kinderman even opines that the Happiness Index will be more important than the GDP one day, because he cannot see where the constant 3% growth should be coming form.
Perhaps this could really prevent angry mobs from torching police cars and thousands of people from depression, but Vicrant is convinced that the UK will never change. Once again he looks out of the monochrome window and says: “England is an island, so is the people’s thinking.”