Today is happiness day, but could greater happiness be a permanent reality?

David TrossThis post was contributed by David Tross, associate lecturer at Birkbeck. David is running a series of workshops on happiness and wellbeing as part of Birkbeck’s Pop-up University in Willesden Green, which is running until the end of May.

The 20 March is the UN International Day of Happiness, recognizing, it says, ‘the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives’. If you visit the UN’s observance day website, happy images include Ban Ki Moon dancing ‘gangnam style’ with puffy South Korean popster Psy, though paradoxically its text also recommends marking the occasion ‘in an appropriate manner, including through education and public awareness-raising activities.’ If this doesn’t sound particularly joyful, the UK organisation Action for happiness suggests a range of everyday activities to increase your happiness and those around you. If hugging strangers on the street sounds more dangerous than life-enhancing, then other ideas, including mindfulness meditation and keeping gratitude journals, are in keeping with older, eastern and western philosophical notions of how to live a good life.

What’s new is the shift in the claims made about the efficacy of these methods, with many contemporary scholars hailing happiness as a ‘new science’ on the basis of developments in measuring happiness that can be applied not just to individuals but to whole countries. The latest World Happiness Report, taking measures of self-reported life satisfaction and mood data from 156 countries, has proclaimed Denmark as the happiest country in the world, with fellow Scandinavian countries following close behind. (The UK is in 22nd place). Forget the bleakness and bad weather of popular scandi-noir TV shows, the research suggests. Denmark’s secret? Social equality, socialising across social classes, generous childcare policies, realistic personal expectations and a cozy spirit of togetherness the Danes call ‘hygge’ ( the closest translation might be the Irish ‘craic’). Although the scientific validity of these measures have been questioned, particularly  in terms  of cross-country comparisons, the findings are supported by claims brought to the public’s attention in 2008 with the publication of The Spirit Level, that the most unequal countries perform worst across a range of wellbeing indicators including trust, mental health, drug addiction, obesity and literacy.

This is the happiness paradox in action: after basic needs have been met, increased wealth has not produced greater happiness in rich countries, the gains made in life expectancy and income cancelled out by the personal and social stresses of a competitive, materialistic society. If happiness and wellbeing provides an alternative measure of social progress to economic growth then surely we should be encouraged by the enthusiasm of politicians, with David Cameron’s commissioning of an ONS-led UK happiness index the latest in a series of government-backed initiatives in France, Canada and the original happiness pioneers, the tiny nation of Bhutan. But some are suspicious. Government-backed happiness is the dystopian vision of Huxley’s Brave New World, where everybody feels good and nobody is free. And if the number of people relying on food banks to survive has tripled over the last year, why are we wasting our time on happiness when there are more pressing concerns? As the philosopher Julian Baggini has noted, ‘If you look at the countries that do best in surveys of wellbeing, they haven’t got there by having these indices. They’ve got there by agreeing what priorities should be”.

Such concerns are understandable in the context of recent ONS data suggesting the UK has become happier from 2012 to 2013; instead of an antidote, happiness measures could be used to legitimise austerity economics and increasing inequality.

The British economist Richard Layard declares that ‘happiness must be the business of government’. yet his policy recommendations, including spending to alleviate unemployment and poverty, sound almost socialist. Could it be that the happiness agenda could be a way of sneaking the politically taboo concepts of social justice and greater income equality in through the back door? Should you eliminate poverty because it makes people (including the rich) unhappy, or because it is the right thing to do? The answer might be to create the wider social and economic conditions conducive to individual fulfilment and not micro-manage the personal paths. But paradoxically, happiness is serious. Scroll along from the dancing UN secretary general on the UN website and you get a caption celebrating ten years of peace in Liberia. No disrespect to Psy, but that’s the kind of happiness many more would get behind.

Share
. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , ,

Beyond Citizenship? International Women’s Day: the gender agenda

This post was contributed by Sasha Roseneil, Professor of Sociology and Social Theory and Director of the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

International Women’s Day is the moment each year to reflect on the ongoing struggle against the inequalities and oppressions that mean that women continue to be less than fully equal citizens. It is an occasion to stand back and think about how far we’ve come, what remains to be achieved, and how we formulate our demands for the future.

Since the late 18th century, the prospect of full and equal citizenship has animated generations of feminists. Yet citizenship is a troubling proposition for feminism because whilst it promises inclusion it always also enacts exclusion. Citizenship simultaneously creates insiders and outsiders – citizens and aliens, as well as good citizens and bad citizens. And whilst feminists have fought for a say in the running of states – as voters, workers, politicians and activists – feminism has also always been a process of exposing the limitations, restrictions and violence enacted by states through their constructions of citizenship. This paradox has intensified in recent years, as the notion of citizenship has become a buzzword in politics and academia, particularly in a Europe increasingly concerned with questions of borders and membership.

On the one hand, feminists have expanded the concept of citizenship beyond the classical concern with political citizenship, to articulate demands for wider social, cultural and economic change. The notion of intimate citizenship, for instance, has been developed to refer to the goal of ensuring that every person should be free to develop her own identity and sense of self, and the close personal relationships that matter to her, with the respect, recognition and support of the state and society. And the idea of economic citizenship refers to the right to work in the occupation of one’s choice, in a non-discriminatory job market, to earn wages adequate to support self and family and to access adequate social benefits when work is not possible. Both these concepts enable us to think more clearly about the extent to which feminist claims for full and equal citizenship have been realised. They help us to see the many successes of 20th century feminism in remaking citizenship for women. So, as well as opening up access to formal politics, women’s movements have meant that social benefits and welfare provision for women were established, economic participation and financial independence became possible, and self-determination and freedom of choice in intimate and sexual life were radically extended.

But, on the other hand, feminists continue to draw attention to the lived realities of those who are still not caught in the warm embrace of a full and equal citizenship – those suffering gendered violence and sexual abuse, the disabled and the dependent, members of minoritised, racialised and sexually excluded groups, illegal aliens and the “sans papiers”, the poor and precariously positioned, gender non-conformists and many others. From this perspective, feminism needs to ask whether the incompleteness of the victories of second wave feminism actually marks the limits of what is possible under the auspices of “citizenship”?

Perhaps there are fundamental flaws in citizenship as a feminist objective, tied as it is to the liberal individual and to the nation-state? Can the inherent vulnerability of the human body, and our fundamental human interdependence, ever be truly recognised and supported when citizenship adheres to the individual? Can the differences between peoples, and the singularity of each individual, really thrive under the universalistic intentions of citizenship?

This paradoxical situation produces a “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” relationship with the ideal of citizenship for feminism. And as with any attachment that seems to offer so much, that tantalises and teases, but that continues to fail to give us what we really want, we should ask ourselves whether we should hang on in there, trying to make the relationship work, or whether we should let go and move on? Is citizenship still an idea worth fighting for, or should we find a different language to express our yearnings for equality and our desire to belong?

Sasha Roseneil is editor of ‘Beyond Citizenship? Feminism and the Transformation of Belonging’, a new book exploring the current state and history of feminist politics (to be published by Palgrave Macmillan, March 2013), and co-editor of “Remaking Citizenship in Multicultural Europe: women’s movements, gender and diversity” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Share
. 1 comment . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , ,

The tricky task of achieving life/work balance

On Monday 25 February Birkbeck held an Athena SWAN mentoring event, primarily aimed at women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith, Professorial Research Fellow in the Department of Psychological Sciences, shares her advice, gained over her 36-year career as an academic in Switzerland, Holland and the UK .

 

My experience with mentoring young scientists has been that most females focus on how to balance career with having children, and less often on how to advance their careers, yet of course they should do both. By contrast, males tend to focus mainly on career advancement, rarely raising the problem of balance with family life, yet they too should do both.

The two-body problem

Academics often have academic partners, although the problems are just as difficult when one partner’s career is outside academia.  One lesson I have learnt is that one must discuss everything beforehand.  Don’t wait until the problems arise and resentment creeps in.  Be objective, realising in advance that one of you may get a superb offer in a place where the other cannot find something suitable.  What will happen if that arises?  Whose career will have precedence (certainly not automatically the man’s!)?  How will you find compromises that meet both your needs to some extent, even if not to perfection?  Whose career is more transportable?  All these issues must be faced in advance, without which debates end up in resentment for one party and guilt for the other…. often resulting in a doomed relationship.  You have to ask yourself, which is more important: career or relationship, even if both are important.  The solution isn’t to pretend the issue won’t arise!

Integrating family and career

Many young academics desire a child.  It is often assumed that a busy career means a single child.  In a newspaper article many years ago, Katherine Whitehorn raised the question “one child or many?” and concluded that, if you are a busy professional, it may be better – albeit counterintuitive – to have several children!  She reasoned that a singleton waits desperately for mum (or dad) to come home, whereas several children just muck in together and barely notice their parent is away.  What about maternity leave?  Fortunately, since I was a mother, maternity (and paternity) leave has vastly improved, so you could devote yourself entirely to the new arrival. This is clearly your right, but is it such a good idea?  My advice is that, if you intend to pursue your career, then don’t cut off completely during the maternity leave.  Save a special time each day to check email, read the latest article, jot down notes for your next article or research project.  You are going to have to juggle both once you return to work, so start practising gently now.  Remember that the smaller the baby the more s/he sleeps, so take your baby to special lectures or a conference.  Feed the baby just before it starts and hopefully s/he’ll sleep right through.  Do sit on an aisle seat, though, in case s/he starts screaming!!   And, once you’re back fulltime at work, agree with your partner in advance on how you will both decide who will come home anytime the baby is sick – not automatically the mother!

Focus your research

When you had no home responsibilities, it may have been fine to dabble in numerous research projects, but once there are family responsibilities, it is essential to focus your research. Try to arrange to teach on courses that are related to your research so that your reading serves both.

Avoiding guilt

Remind yourself frequently that you cannot be superwoman!  Keep an eye on your health and remember that sleep isn’t only a time of rest, but that parts of the brain are more active during sleep than wakefulness and that sleep is critical for the consolidation of memory.  Avoid guilt, and learn to say “No” to requests to take on extra tasks.  Protect yourself at this time of your career; you can be an avid volunteer in the future.  Tell yourself that it’s OK to use day-care and, when you drop off your child, leave with a confident stride.  Babies pick up on their parents’ doubts.  Do ask for help when you need it.  You don’t have to prove you can do it all alone.

You never stop being a mum…

A personal ending:  I thought that when my daughters left the nest, had their own careers and families, I could simply get on with my career without a second thought… Alas no!  Now the potential guilt raises its head again:  how do I juggle expected grandmother duties (I have seven) with the pressures of my academic career?  Rest assured, I have no regrets… having children, grandchildren and a busy career have fulfilled my life.

Share
. Reply . Category: Science . Tags: , , , , , ,