Barbro Bjorkman

What kind of happiness?

At a conference for headteachers child psychologist Dr Carol Craig (chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Glasgow) warned that “young people were being encouraged to believe that the most important thing in life is whether they feel happy”. She argued that the exaggerated focus on building pupils self-esteem left adults overly afraid of criticising the children. “Parents no longer want to hear if their children have done anything wrong. This is the downside of the self-esteem agenda. The problem is that if you tell parents that it’s incredibly important that children feel good all the time, we will get people going out of their way to boost children’s self-esteem all the time”.  Dr Craig added that this lack of criticism gave rise to narcissism in the children which would leave them ill-equipped for forming lasting relationships. (The Observer, 15.03.09). This made me think about what we mean when we say ‘happiness’ and when we talk about a happy, or a good, life. The above seems to imply that many parents and other adults believe that being criticised (even in a constrictive, sensitive and appropriate manner) would somehow be incompatible with being happy. Is it the case that we in society today tacitly, or otherwise, subscribe to the idea that a happy life equals an uncomplicated life largely void of challenges?

In spite of objectively being among the best off in the world Swedish teens and young adults rank how they feel about themselves and their level of wellbeing comparatively low. When polled a relatively large number report that they suffer from anxiety, stress and unhappiness. One example is the WHO report ‘Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC)’ which is based on national studies of young people’s health and wellbeing. Some 40 countries participate in this study the aim of which is to “gain new insight into, and increase our understanding of young people's health and well-being, health behaviours and their social context” (here).  When asked to rank their life satisfaction Swedish children and teens scored significantly lower than the other Nordic countries. According to the national 2005/2006 report 43% of 15-16 year olds said that they felt down at least once a week (to be compared with 25% in 1985 for example). In the 2007 status report summary states that “Self-reported mental ill health – such as anxiety, worry, or anguish and continuous tiredness – has decreased to some degree in several population groups since the beginning of the 21st century, having previously shown an increasing trend for some years. In certain groups, however, mental ill health has continued to increase since the years of 2000–2001, in particular among young women.” (here). These results are echoed in others studies e.g. ‘MTV Wellbeing Study’ (here and here) which polled 5200 16-34 year olds in 14 countries on their own perceived sense of wellbeing. Although Swedes ended up high in the ranking overall it is interesting to note that only 27% said that they were happy (compare e.g. with Argentina 75%, Mexico 71% and Indonesia 62%).

These and other similar results have triggered a rather intense debate, both with regards to possible causes and the reliability of such findings, among Swedish politicians, journalist and the general public alike. Undoubtedly there are many complex factors at play here and no one explanation covers it all but a contributing factor might be an expectation that a good and successful life must not involve experiences like failure and disappointment.

This would, however, require an extremely sheltered existence and exclude a lot of the things that would be a part of a happy life. For most of us a good quality life is a life filled with experiences, encounters and interaction. But as we expose ourselves and introduce others into our lives we also become susceptible to disappointment, loss and so on. Evidently I don’t wish to imply that pain and suffering are good states in themselves nor that we ought to accept social injustice, poverty, violence and disease as a natural part of a human life. Quite to the contrary I would argue that we should work both on improving ourselves as well as society and promote happiness and wellbeing on a large scale. The point is rather that even if we are successful in this project it seems that in light of what we know about human nature and human co-existence a good life will be a bit of a mixed bag. In all likelihood it will involve anger, loss, failure, rejection, pain and disappointment but it will also offer pleasure, warmth, joy and success. One might come up against both the limitations of ourselves and the limitations of other people but the fact that we are human doesn’t mean that we cannot have good and happy lives.

Perhaps then the problem is not so much an exaggerated focus on happiness (if anything, to strive to be happy seems a fine and noble goal) but rather this narrow understanding of what type of experiences a happy human life could involve. 

A kidney for a heart – some thoughts on ownership of biological material

Back in 2001 Richard Batista, a vascular surgeon at Nassau University Medical Center, donated a kidney to his wife Dawnell Batista in an attempt to save both her life and their failing marriage (here and here). Although the transplantation (Ms Batista’s third) was a success nothing could salvage the marriage and in 2005 Ms Battista filed for divorce. The infuriated Mr Battista responded by demanding his kidney back. Mr Battista said that while he had done everything to save her – as his lawyer put it “acted ‘godlike’” – she had exploited his kindness and betrayed him in the worst of ways. He accused her of having an affair with her physical therapist, said that she refused marriage counselling (implying it could have saved the marriage) and that she would not let him see their 3 children. Ms Battista, on the other hand, denied the affair and said that her soon to be ex-husband was “insanely jealous and hyper-suspicious”. Faced with the impossibility of actually getting the organ back Mr Battista has announced that he wants to be compensated monetarily. More precisely he holds that $1.5 million would be the appropriate market value of the kidney. The hearing started last month and it seems fair to assume that the claim for monetary compensation will be rejected. The selling of organs is illegal in the USA and as pointed out by one of the lawyers involved; a kidney is not a marital asset to be divided. The sensationalist overtones of the Batista case aside, it is clear that ownership of biological material is one of the most challenging issues in bioethics today. Arguably, a strongly contributing factor is that it is not particularly clear what it means to own biological material. Which are the rights and obligations that we have with regards to our own, and other people’s, biological material?

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Reliably sinful – how to maximise profit

Even in these changing times it would appear some things stay the same. One example would be our insatiable appetite for vice. Indeed, given the bleak financial situation the demand for a bit of instant gratification might well be on the increase. This is the business idea behind the Vice Fund and other similar enterprises. The perpetual flux aside, alcohol, gambling, cigarettes and arms never seem to go out of fashion. Some financial analysts say that as the demand for this type of products is comparatively stable and less sensitive to recession an investment portfolio consisting of ‘unethical stocks’ will fare better than its ethical counterpart. This idea is neatly illustrated in the catchphrase of the US based Vice Fund “When it’s good, it’s very, very good …and when it’s bad it’s better”.

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From doomed lamb to potential phoenix – the story of a modern sacrifice

‘Is there a place for sacrifice in the modern world?’ a colleague asked during a conference in Oxford this weekend. To an extent the answer appears to depend on what we mean by sacrifice. The traditional religious version is arguably in demise in a secular and increasingly individualistic society, but could it be that another version is on the rise? It has become almost standard procedure that when a politician, business leader or other public person is caught doing something they really shouldn’t do, they go for the public apology. In this grovelling mea culpa parade they offer themselves up in tasty little morsels intended to satisfy the public appetite. Sometimes the outrage is such that, for all their efforts, they are still sent packing. Yet all is not lost, after a while out in the cold a surprising number resurface to take on new posts involving big responsibilities presumably requiring both a strong character and sound judgement. But do we really have good reason to think that time out of the lime light equals time spent on moral contemplation?

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Drop the cane and listen!

In my last blog I commented on the call for virtuous behaviour and reliable role models in troubled times. My example then was the financial crisis but I would like to continue this theme as I believe I have spotted a similar move in another area; namely the upbringing of children. Anti-social behaviour among the young is a big problem in society today and the standard response has been more control and stricter rules. In his new book psychologist Stephen Briers begs to differ.

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Time to get virtuously enhanced?

In the media coverage of the global finance crisis over the last weeks there has been a massive call for a revival of the virtues. Everyone from the Archbishop of Canterbury to tabloid journalists has condemned the behaviour of finance industry professionals and words like avarice, immoderation and selfishness have repeatedly featured in the news. It would appear that Gordon Gecko’s once trendy motto “Greed is good” has lost some if its appeal.

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