Chuckle Muscles Part One

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Monday July 6 2015.


Colman's Column3

More than his Share?


Journalist Stephen Smith called Ken Dodd “the Chuck Berry of comedy, a cussed and self-made pioneer.” Smith interviewed both entertainers and lived to tell the tale.  Ken Dodd had a hit record singing: “The greatest gift that I possess/Is more than my share of happiness”. One cannot help but wonder if Dodd really had his share of happiness. He has never married (being unmarried does not, of course, preclude happiness).

According to proverbial wisdom: “Money cannot buy happiness”. In 1989, Dodd was charged with tax evasion. He was acquitted, but a strange picture of his miserly life emerged. He had never paid the children who featured as Diddymen in his act. He had very little money in his bank account but there was £336,000 in cash stashed in suitcases in his attic. When asked by the judge, “What does a hundred thousand pounds in a suitcase feel like?” Dodd replied, “The notes are very light, M’Lord.”


Joy through Work?

Even at the age of 87, Dodd still follows a punishing work schedule. During the 1960s he earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s longest ever joke-telling session: 1,500 jokes in three and a half hours (7.14 jokes per minute), undertaken at a Liverpool theatre, where audiences were observed to enter the show in shifts. He continues to tour and, despite his age, his shows still frequently do not finish until after midnight.

Another Liverpudlian, John Lennon, sang that happiness was a warm gun but Mark Chapman shot him dead.

Happiness Measures

What is happiness and how can we measure it? Many league tables attempt to compare the performance of different nations. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) defines GDP (gross domestic product)  as “an aggregate measure of production equal to the sum of the gross values added of all resident, institutional units engaged in production”.

The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income indices used to rank countries into four tiers of human development. Sri Lanka moved up six places on the CPI (Transparency International annual  global Corruption Perception Index) to 85th out of 175 with a score of 38 points (compared to 37 the previous year).

Happy Planet

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) concocted the Happy Planet Index in July 2006. The HPI is an index of human well-being and environmental impact. It is not a measure of which are the happiest countries in the world. The index is designed to challenge well-established indices of countries’ development, such as the GDP and the HDI. The GDP is seen as  deficient because the ultimate aim of most people is not to be rich, but to be happy and healthy. The HPI sets out to be a measure of the ecological efficiency of supporting well-being.  Whatever the caveats, the results are still surprising. The 2012 ranking compared 151 countries and the best scoring country for the second time in a row was Costa Rica, followed by Vietnam, Colombia, Belize and El Salvador. Costa Rica is often thought of as a good place to be but El Salvador seems like hell on earth. Sri Lanka comes in at 35, between Switzerland and Iraq.

What Use Is the HPI?

Critics point out that the HPI completely ignores issues such as political freedom, human rights and labour rights. The subjective measures of well-being are suspect. The ecological footprint is a controversial and much criticized concept. The index has been criticised for weighting the carbon footprint too heavily, to the point that US Americans would have had to be universally happy and would have had to have a life expectancy of 439 years to equal Vanuatu’s score in the 2006 index. The highest-ranking OECD country is Israel in 15th place, and the top Western European nation is Norway in 29th place, just behind New Zealand in 28th.

This seems to be a useless kind of index. However, the British Conservative Party cited HPI as a possible substitute for GDP in 2007. The European Parliament lists the following advantages to using the HPI as a measure of national progress:

  • Combines well being and environmental aspects
  • Simple and easily understandable scheme for calculating the index
  • Comparability of results (‘EF’ and ‘life expectancy’ can be applied to different countries)
  • Data online available, although some data gaps remain
  • Mixture of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ criteria; takes into account people’s well-being and resource use of countries

Sri Lanka Unhappier than Sudan?

The UN released the first World Happiness Report on April 1, 2012. It outlined the state of world happiness, causes of happiness and misery, and policy implications. The report presented case studies including one on Bhutan, the first and so far only country to have officially adopted gross national happiness instead of the gross domestic product as the main development indicator.

Denmark comes in at a lowly 111 in the HPI, compared to Haiti’s 79. Nevertheless, Denmark is the happiest country in the world, according to the World Happiness Report 2013, the most recent United Nations happiness study available. Sri Lanka came in at 137, below Mali, Uganda, the Palestinian Territories, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Haiti. Since 1973, the Danes have also topped the European Commission’s Eurobarometer scale, which measures the ‘well-being’ and ‘happiness’ of EU citizens. Its capital city Copenhagen was also named the “world’s most livable city” again earlier this year by the international affairs magazine Monocle for its quality of life.

I have travelled to many places, including Denmark,  and have lived in Sri Lanka for twelve years. I have never been to Sudan (although I did visit their London embassy on business and did not meet any happy people) but I do not think I would be as happy there as I am in Sri Lanka, for all Sri Lanka’s failings. I have never been to El Salvador but I have written about it and researched it. I have traveled around Denmark. I know where I would rather be, whatever about ecological footprints. I lived in Ireland and I lived in the UK. Ireland came tenth in the UN survey. In answers to the simple question: “are you happy? Ireland came in at number one and number two when it comes to having a laugh.

Professor John F Helliwell, of the University of British Columbia edited the UN report, together with. Lord Layard, Director of the Well-Being Programme at LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance; and Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University.

The View from the US

A few American commentators do not buy this Scandinavian Utopia thing. Nathan Heller in the New Yorker wrote that  Sweden might mean: “Freedom to follow your talents. Community and coalition-building all around. American life promises liberty, cultural power, and creative opportunity, but by many measures it’s the Swedes who turned this smorgasbord of concepts into a sustaining meal.”However, Heller looks behind the façade and what he discovers makes the HPI look not so silly. Prune out wealth as a factor, and countries like Colombia come out better than in the HPI. Look at  good health, and Denmark falls farther. In the past decade, the proportion of people who live below its poverty line has nearly doubled, to almost eight per cent. Finland may have fine schools, but it is one of the least diverse places on the planet.

Kyle Smith in the New York Post put it more crudely: “So how happy can these drunk, depressed, lazy, tumor-ridden, pig-bonking bureaucrats really be?”

Happy Development

The UN said: “We offer the 2013 World Happiness Report in support of these efforts to bring the study of happiness into public awareness and public policy. This report offers rich evidence that the systematic measurement and analysis of happiness can teach us much about ways to improve the world’s wellbeing and sustainable development.”

More next week on the economic benefits of chuckles.