Morbid happiness

An item on the Beeb alerted me to the fact that the Danes have — yet again — scored highest in some international measurement of happiness levels. Gentle reader read that correctly: the Danes. I do not, as the same reader will know, take much delight in statistics, and so am inclined to manifest scepticism. I do not know, for instance, whether an objective test of happiness (the murder rate), or the corresponding subjective test (the suicide rate), will confirm the surveyors’ findings. The Danes may consistently say they are happy, but are they really? And if it is so, why?

My own anecdotal approach is at odds with the methodology of the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, but there you go. The Danes I have met are, even in the aggregate, statistically unrepresentative. Therefore my observation, that Danes tend to be less playful than Germans, more dour than Scotsmen, and cautious like Swedes, may be dismissed as the product of bigotry. (I have enjoyed their company, nonetheless.) The one truly happy Dane I met seemed pleased mostly by his distance from Denmark (we were somewhere in East Asia at the time). He assured me that his countrymen wouldn’t recognize “fun” if it dribbled all over them. I have heard Copenhagen compared to Ottawa. I would have thought the whole point of Nordicity, or Northernness, after all, is the mastery of indifference to merriment.

But then, happiness would seem to be defined by the UN happiness bureaucracy as “self-satisfaction.” This means high points for smug. It could explain why, for instance, the Italians, who still do “merry” by unlapsed Catholic instinct, and have no very high opinion of themselves, failed to score on the survey questions. They might not even have taken them seriously. There is a certain earnestness in the Northern psyche; I’m sure the Danes took the time to figure how to ace the test.

Oh dear, now I’ve gone and looked it up. As I suspected, the Danes are near the top of the world suicide table. They’re not actually at the top, but the countries ahead of them are just what you’d expect. Lithuania wins first place; it is amazing they have any people left. In their disposition to kill themselves, Baltic countries, and other Scandihoovians, are all competitive, with Russians. Bhutan is right up there, too, incidentally (I believe their government inspired the creation of the UN’s new happiness index); and the one mystery is how Canada fell behind the United States. I should have thought everyone knew what high latitudes do to the human soul, through the long winter nights. (Living permanently in the shadows of great mountains explains most of the other cases.) Humans were designed to sometimes feel the sun. Deprived of this, they work themselves slowly off their hinges.

But again, statistics don’t explain anything, and those which report what people think — especially what they think about themselves — are least likely to be useful. I don’t trust the correlations; even after explaining in the usual yawning way that correlation is not causation. The most you can hope from this pseudo-science is for a number to quote, as a mnemonic aid, to support some belief pattern. A random number would do as well, which is why most people with axes to grind simply make numbers up on the fly, then repeat them back and forth to each other until their friends in the media take up the mantra, and there are more little lies to buttress the big ones.

“Happiness” is anyway a vague concept. It had some meaning two or three centuries ago, when it suggested not only prosperity but the “fittingness” with which it had been achieved, so that a man who had earned his good station through work, foresight, and good living, would be thought happier than a man who had, say, just won the lottery. And, people not being all quite the same, happiness might take different forms in different individuals; thereby becoming unmeasurable in a final, categorical way. Nor could there be any need to measure it. Not so today, when the need to measure everything is taken as self-evident, and what can’t be measured is held to not exist.

The current sense assumes that happiness is indistinguishable from pleasure, and that it is therefore bestowed by some external agency — as when you do something, or go somewhere, that will make you happy. In the clip I saw, the BBC cameras took us straight to Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, by way of exhibiting this empty modern ideal. The presenter — gesticulating in that trademark, jackass, BBC way — then interviewed some smiling young student of sociology, who thinks the Danes must be happy thanks to their highly evolved welfare state. (To which one might add the loss of that old Bible-thumping premonition of eternal hellfire.)

I would instead suggest looking for an explanation in geology. From some shrink, writing in the New York Times, we learn that lithium levels vary in the local rock, and that considerable differences in human behaviour (as statistically indicated) may be attributed to local concentrations, carried in the water supply. Moreover, one may ask what else the people are drinking. For while lithium may have toxic and sometimes lethal effects in high doses and chloride form, it can be used more subtly. Apparently, Americans were much happier before 1950, when moderate doses of lithium were added quite purposefully to commercial soda drinks. That’s what put the “up” in “7-Up.”

Today, after the discovery of how useful lithium can be in helping to level, if not lobotomize, some of the more alarming “bipolar” cases, the proposal to add it methodically to the water supply, along with fluoride, is coming into vogue. It may soon be a “progressive” cause, such that no one will be asked to vote on it. What better way to deal with a general population which, thanks to the success of other progressive causes, is now going insane?

Pourquois pas, as they say. We may not realize this trace element is already present in the water, and in everything else — just as we do not realize that e.g. apples are mildly radioactive. This knowledge tends to be suppressed, to save us all from malades imaginaires — the hypochondrias and hysterias that overload our socialized health-care systems — until it is needed to promote some environmental scare. Unfortunately, the Internet has now pulled out all the stops, and people can scare themselves without organized assistance.

My speculation is that little Denmark may be sitting on peat strata with a remarkably high lithium concentration. This might explain a lot of things about Denmark — a world leader in ion-lithium battery technology.

Alternatively, one thinks of Mogens Schou, the Danish pioneer of modern psychopharmacology, who began testing the effects of lithium on his co-workers and many others back in 1949, on such a scale that one thing may have led to another. Perhaps the Danish authorities are secretly putting tonnes of lithium into the water supply, merely as an extension of Dr Schou’s research, not realizing that the man is dead and they can stop now.

There is, of course, a little problem with lithium as a catch-all cure for ambient mental illness, for while the “don’t worry be happy” response to increased lithium doses is a commonplace of current psychiatric medicine, it does not have the same effect on all customers. Some, reasonably tame before, flip right out upon receiving it. Others are inspired to feel better about themselves while committing major crimes. Yet the prevailing statistical utilitarianism continues to insist on “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and it is the presumption of modern technology that exceptional cases may be overlooked.