Belfast Telegraph

Happiness, the luxury not everyone can afford

It's hard to be happy when you haven't enough to eat or have lost your job or your home. Society should concentrate on providing a safety net for those who are worst off, says Malachi O'Doherty

I was cycling around Lough Neagh last week. You could say that I was striving in the pursuit of happiness. How else do you explain a 60-year-old man pumping along on two wheels in the rain?

I wanted, I thought, to be out in the fresh air, to feel accomplished and fit, even to have the story of the journey to talk about to entertain friends with at dinner parties. "You should have seen me; I was amazing."

Then I could be smug about their paunches and their fag habits and feel like a superior being.

But the journey went awry. I got lost a few times. My friend Pat, cycling with me, didn't just get one puncture; he got two. And it rained.

If you don't study the map of the cycle-route around Lough Neagh, you might miss the fact that the route takes you through Portadown - not the nicest place to be on a Saturday afternoon. What about the birdsong and the breeze? I was in the heart of heavy traffic. And it was bucketing.

And, because I am writing a book about cycling, I made mental notes about what I was doing and how I felt.

My trousers were as wet as if I had waded through a river in them. My thighs were aching and I was plodding at the best pace I could manage along an 'A' road.

How do you feel about this? I said to myself and I noticed that I was not fretful, or uncomfortable; I was not afraid, or tired, or hungry.

I was just wet and zipping through puddles and skirting potholes under my own adequate and quite thrilling exertion. I was like a child in a sand pit.

I was feeling just great and that is the truth. I was loving it.

Now, what is David Cameron to make of that? For a start, he might notice that happiness is individual and idiosyncratic; either that, or he will be daft enough to insist on all men of 60 cycling in the rain.

I would not trust him to read my behaviour and prescribe what is good for me any more than I would take his reading of the conduct of rioters as the basis of a new moral order. And many of them were - let's face it - clearly having the time of their lives, too.

But if we can't expect Cameron to unpick the strands of my happiness in the rain, we can invite him to approach the mystery from a different angle.

Would I have been as happy if I had had a grumbling appendix, or piles, or if my wife had left me that morning?

There is no knowing what will bring fulfilment and joy to another individual, but it is easy to work out the conditions which will spoil the best prospects of happiness. And some of those are in Cameron's remit.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow mapped out a 'hierarchy of needs'.

You can't expect a woman to be cheered by a new dress, or a bunch of flowers, if she doesn't have a home, or the chance of a decent meal.

You can't expect a man to be uplifted by Meatloaf, or Beethoven, if he is hungry, or is in danger of losing his job, or his home, in the morning.

And you can see huge differences between cultures according to how many of the basic needs are met in them.

A poor person in a developing country selects a partner in marriage on material considerations; it's in the West that we can afford to fall in love. An Indian father will want his daughter's suitor to have a decent job and income, or he'll chase him, knowing that happiness can't come from endearments and hugs if the larder is bare.

Looked at this way, happiness is the first concern of government for it is the job of those in power to facilitate the evolution of a society in which people are fed, sheltered, educated and employed; in which they have the income that enables them to form relationships and start families, if they wish.

Yet, when the basic needs are met, something strange happens to people.

They start agonising about things like identity, or internal motivation.

In the prosperous societies, people seek out counselling and therapy and seek to know themselves. There are discomforts peculiar to the settled and the rich. Try explaining the angst of Woody Allen to an Indian villager, or a pensioner who has to choose between heating or eating.

All of this suggests that a happiness index might not be much use for measuring the success of a society or economy. What is important is to secure the basic needs of all.

Unhappiness will be one of the indicators of poverty and inequality. But there will then be many people who will be happy, or unhappy, for reasons that are well beyond any material explanation.

Those people will be cycling in the rain, listening to weird music, or fretting about the meaning of life. None of this is any business of government.

For them, Cameron should respond like a total laissez faire Tory and let them wallow in grief, or in mud, as the notion takes them, or the conditions of life dictate.

For Cameron to be mulling over how we might all be happier, when the obvious needs of housing, education, health and purpose in life have not been met, is pathetic.

Let him deal with the poor first and the rest of us can decide for ourselves what brings us joy.

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