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Statistics of happiness

Posted on 30 November 2010, 22:11

Who would have thought the Office for National Statistics would one day be guardian of our souls? Or that our future might lie in silence?

Traditionally, the government’s responsibilities are three-fold: national security, law and order and economic stability. But is ‘Everyone’s happiness’ now to be added to the list? The millionaire David Cameron claims there’s more to life than money and has asked the ONS to devise questions that establish the nation’s GWB – general well being. And already I can hear bleak echoes of summer camps past: ‘Is everybody happy?’ ‘You bet your life we are!’

This news story broke as I returned from leading a week-long retreat, where happiness is on everyone’s agenda. The path to that place is not without its struggles, however. As one retreat-maker said in her farewell card: ‘Thanks, Simon – it was hell but enjoyable too.’ She then added, ‘In the course of the week I cried, laughed raucously, experienced deep peace and a moment of true bliss. The silence was undoubtedly the high point.’ I can confirm that she sobbed in desperation; yet somehow came up smiling, which makes me think that hell and happiness might be closer than we think. And that silence is the bridge.

It was Allan K. Chalmers who gave us one popular definition of happiness: ‘The grand essentials of human happiness are something to do, something to love and something to hope for.’ Attractive words, but sadly Adolf Hitler had something to do, love and hope for, yet failed to model any sort of happiness. It seems there’s something more and that we may be missing it. The actress Helen Mirren recently called Britain an ‘angry’ and ‘cruel’ nation, and while every generalisation is stupid, every generalisation is also true.

The purpose of retreat is to restore us to our substantial selves, from where we might find God. The means of such restoration is silence - holding and kind but also revealing. This is why people cry or get angry on retreat. They see things they didn’t see before and strong emotions arise within. Is it any surprise therefore that so many actively avoid such silence? They construct a level of noise in their lives - whether though mental or emotional activity, drugs or technology - that dulls unwanted feelings. So when initially exposed to silence, the reaction is almost always restlessness, and behind this feeling, fear. We’ve kept things under control all this time, but suspect the truth mirror of silence won’t play that game. 

But as brave stillness settles, we allow all things to be truth-bringers, however embarrassing. Having made much of lateness at the start of the retreat, I was then myself half an hour late for one session, after I misread the time. They do say that if you pray for humility you’ll be given a humiliating experience. And that statistically speaking, the heart of happiness is the silent remaking of our hells. 


In my experience one can be happy in the morning, miserable by midday and full of joy in the evening. Happiness is a fickle friend and comes and goes at the drop of a hat.

A better measure of mental health might be contentment. In our consumer society the richest are often the most miserable and the less well off are often in good mental health and vice versa.

I think contentment is the key and whether one is rich or poor; ill or in good health; contentment is a better friend than happiness.

Jon, Wed 1 Dec, 15:03

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“Life After Death – The Communicator” by Paul Beard – If the telephone rings, naturally the caller is expected to identify himself. In post-mortem communication, necessitating something far more complex than a telephone, it is not enough to seek the speakers identity. One needs to estimate also as far as is possible his present status and stature. This involves a number of factors, overlapping and hard to keep separate, each bringing its own kind of difficulty. Four such factors can readily be named. Read here
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