Sunday, 23 October 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Are you a little, very or not satisfied at all with your life? Fret not, for I'm not about to flog you a drug so that you can achieve that state that some people call "nirvana" and others "communism". We all know what happened after the Summer of Love in '68. Flowers-In-Your-Hair Inc. was created. And let's not even go into the whole Berlin Wall shebang. Stasi anyone?

No, the reason, or rather, reasons, why I'm asking you how satistified you are with your live is because recently l'Insee (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques) asked French people the same question. In a scale of 0 to 10 where the nought represented zero satisfaction and the 10 "very satisfied" (or if you like, a survey where people could go from The Rolling Stones to Alice in Wonderland's Cheshire Cat in no time) the Gallic nation settled for an acceptable 7. And that's even without including the French team's recent success in the rugby world cup at the expense of both England and Wales.

The results do not throw up big surprises. Money still features highly in a person's bien-être, but so does health. Which is welcome news for me as that's one of the ways in which we measure happiness in Cuba. We always wish relatives, friends and work colleagues or classmates "good health". The equivalent of "God bless you!" when someone sneezes is in Cuban Spanish "Salud que haya, que belleza sobra" (May there be health for there's already beauty aplenty). So, it's comforting to know that in the developed world not everything is about bling-bling.

More surprising was to find out that our contentment levels diminish between the ages of 45 and 49. In fact from our early thirties to our late forties one of the graphs in the article shows a steady decline in our sense of well-being. What I would like to know is if this is a modern phenomenon, maybe related to our fast-paced lifestyle, or if it was always thus. From our 50s until our early 70s the curve peaks again which might have something to do with feeling more settled and at ease with our lives.

I wonder if I was to conduct the same study worldwide what the score would be. To go back to my original question: do you belong to the Jagger brigade and "can't get no satisfaction", or have you already purred your way through life to relative bliss like our friend the Cheshire Cat? And if the latter, what are the elements that have contributed to it?

Place of residence, job - or lack of it thereof -, relationship status and children. These are all aspects of a person's life at some point or other and therefore are components that can and do alter patterns, thus bringing about changes in our wellbeing. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 and the recent austerity measures introduced by the coalition government in Britain, there's been a spate of commentaries that centre on what we, human beings, should really be focusing on. Our priorities, if you like. And money, not surprisingly, has been given a supporting role. A good example is the section "Thought for the Day", on Radio 4's Today programme. This is a five-minute slot where representatives of different religious faiths (no secular speakers are allowed yet) theorise on contemporary issues. For the last year or so I've noticed a shift in the subjects discussed; from God-related items to more earthly ones such as: empathy, justice and thriftiness. Of course, the Abrahamic faiths have always preached against human flaws like greed, even if the organisations that represent them have occasionally been found guilty of the same sin. But it is not too far-fetched to think that, faced with a money-minded society and the consequences of this mantra, people are beginning to take a long, hard look at the world around them and not just at their bank account.

There was a similar exercise to the French survey a year ago by Britain's equivalent of l'Insee, the Office of National Statistics, when the Prime Minister, David Cameron, asked the organisation to gauge general well-being. It was somewhat marred by the background of protests and discontent that accompanied the press release. Plus, the PM missed an important detail: happiness or satisfaction is a subjective phenomenon. You can speculate on it with graphs and numbers, but in the end some people are chuffed about autumnal days whereas others are frustrated about the fact that their hard-earned qualifications cannot get them the job they believe they deserve (as the French study showed). To try to come up with a happiness index based on the standard GDP model is like attempting to teach ballet to a hippo, Fantasia notwithstanding.

Above all, it comes down to whether you feel less satisfied because "a man comes on the radio/he's tellin' me more and more/about some useless information/supposed to fire my imagination", or if the permanent grin on your face is based more on the abundance of milk and cream around you. Grumpy, aging rocker or cheeky-chappie feline? The choice is yours.

© 2011

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 26th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Photo taken by the blog author.


  1. I know that I'm a great deal more content at 66 than I was at 46 or even 56. The reason isn't hard to find - I'm retired with a very very modest pension after 30 years at a very difficult job. Now, I can devote my time and energy to my new career as an arts journalist, followed by more time to paint which has been my life long love. My health is OK, not great all the time but the problems so far are minor. I know that if I were one of the millions who have lost their jobs and have no safety net that I would not be content. In fact, I'd be furious. So much depends on things outside our control, doesn't it? I know that there are those evolved souls who can be content, even when struggling under a blizzard of difficulties. I"m not one of them. Thanks again for your essays which make me think - not only do you introduce me to new music but I mull your ideas over for a long time after I've read your column.

  2. I am in awe of your ability week after week to come up with yet more insightful posts about an amazingly diverse list of topics. Given the stresses faced by so many people worldwide, this was a timely one. I agree with namastenancy that there is a threshold level some of us have to reach before being able to focus on higher concept questions like, are you happy? As a goal, of course, untying one’s happiness to external circumstances is a worthy goal and one I work on a lot. That said, those external circumstances are sometimes hard to ignore.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. To clarify, I had to delete a comment because for some strange reason my comment posted twice.

  5. A very interesting topic, Cuban. It is a coincidence that yours was the first post I read after finishing my post on how I'm feeling at peace with myself these days, in spite of dilemmas and questions. It is not that I am content to the point of nirvana. But, I am at peace. I want to try a million new things, explore different lands and do a lot more than I am doing now. There is a quest, and yet, there is peace and contentment. I'm not sure why this happens. In fact, it is only now that I am experiencing something like it.

  6. Thanks for your comments. Judith, no worries, it's happened to me a lot. Welcome to the club! :-) Blogger has a way of playing up sometimes which gets on my nerves.

    Namastemancy, I hope I can reach 66 feeling like and churning quality material like you do, week in, week out.

    SG, like you, I feel mostly contented with my life. In my case I attribute this to making few demands and living more. It works wonders. :-)

    Greetings from London.

  7. My take on the dip in happiness from mid- to late-forties is that it's often a transitional time. The kids are becoming adults, with all that entails including a future that may look very different from the life lived thus far.
    The other day, a group of us observed a family of 6 busily preparing to set out on a sailboat for a week's holiday and we were all struck by how happy they seemed. Children busy and excited, intent on doing their respective tasks properly, parents unperturbed - in almost Zen fashion - by the apparent (to us) chaos. The whole scene positively reeked of contentment. I wonder how they might have responded to the Insee questionnaire? Had I been asked at that very moment, I would have rated myself very happy, just from the spillover effect.

    I've been away for a while, Cuban, but would never forget about you.

  8. The fresh winds of Autumn are here, so you must be striding London with a smile? Great patches of sunlit diamonds in our garden ...
    I am happier and more content now, past thirty, then I ever was as a girl in my teens or twenties. I like to think it's because I actively sought happiness and peace from the age of 18...

    An aside - are you doing much fiction reading? Did you ever pick up a novel called The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz? He is a Pulitzer prize winner from the Dominican Republic... Check it out when you are next in a bookstore...



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