Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Happiness Index

You’ll be pleased to hear that the Government have, conveniently in the middle of a recession, decided that happiness can be measured in more than GDP. The Gross Domestic Product is the value of goods and services that a country produces annually and has been used to calculate how happy (because rich=happy, right?) a nation might be. In the UK our GDP has been growing steadily since 1948 and we are even now the 6th wealthiest nation in the world. Yet very far from the 6th happiest, we come a fairly miserable 74th. There is a distinct link between misery and financial prosperity, with China and India’s growing unhappiness linked to their increasing economic success.

Lord Layard in a government report back in 2005 suggested that

A network of 250 treatment centers staffed by 10,000 therapists are needed urgently to tackle the epidemic of unhappiness that is Britain's "biggest social problem.


Whilst many therapists understand happiness to be elusive at best and philosophically difficult to determine we’re still steering clients towards ways of being that we find acceptable as if acceptability equals wellbeing. It’s become an unthinking cliché that wellbeing and employment walk hand in hand, something that a majority of counsellors swallow carelessly and repeat in all kinds of unthinking manners with each other and with clients, one which just happens to suit the values of a politics which calculates happiness via the GDP i.e. gives extreme worth to employment and opprobrium to its opposite.

In fact, being employed can be profoundly disturbing to and unhealthy for many people. It’s where most adults experience bullying – 1 in 4 employees are currently experiencing it.

Where competition and comparison are part of personal and professional development people are under enormous pressure to ‘perform’ that is, to do stuff that they’ve been trained like monkeys to do, which may be entirely unnatural to them, and which determines their entire system of self worth and personal values. It is positively bad for ones health, for instance, to travel in conditions that are illegal for transporting cattle but which many commuters submit to twice daily.

Individual people - you, me, our friends, colleagues and clients – are only acceptable when we’re producing stuff that has an economic value. Artists are only artists when they sell their products at a profit that allows them to lead a ‘normal’ life: those that don’t are fantasists or otherwise deluded. They can also be a genuine financial drain on their partners and families, another pressure to reject what can be fundamental to their wellbeing to become a respectable, tax paying consumer member of society.

Respectability is a severely powerful force. Counsellors want to be respectable and accepted by our peers only rocking the boat, if at all, in an acceptable manner, perhaps by producing some unthreatening research. Knowing that people are more than machine parts seems obvious and worthy, but to propose that being employed is exactly that for a great many people is threatening and revolutionary for many counsellors. Too many of us grind our way through the BACP accreditation process knowing that most complaints are made against accredited counsellors and not caring because employment as a counsellor is increasingly dependent on being accredited.

For a nuanced understanding of the role of employment in happiness take a look at

Work, Happiness and Unhappiness
Peter Warr
Psychology Press

and imagine if those 250 centers employing 10,000 thoughtful counsellors genuinely empowered individuals to seek what authentically brought them pleasure.

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