The measure of the man

I noticed something strange today – people were talking about happiness. Not just in a casual “how are you” way but the metrics of happiness. That’s right folks, the Government have decided that they can measure our level of happiness. Or so the media would like us to believe. A range of headlines emerged yesterday and today about the level of “happiness” in the UK, from what makes us happy to what can make us less happy. apparently.  Unfortunately it is not as easy as that and the real basis of these reports is the Office for National Statistics attempts to measure National Wellbeing. As a researcher I know that finding out accurate and objective answers to highly qualitative and subjective questions is not easy. In some ways the national statisticians should be applauded for their efforts.

But dig a little deeper and what does this actually mean. Today’s headlines have been generated by a report issued by ONS on its “What Matters to You” national debate. As they state

“ONS held 175 events, involving around 7,250 people. In total the debate generated 34,000 responses, some of which were from organisations and groups representing thousands more.”

That’s quite a lot of feelings to understand (even if I am dubious about the “groups representing thousands”). So how do you do this in an objective way. Here is what ONS had to say:

“The term ‘well-being’ is often taken to mean ‘happiness’. Happiness is one aspect of the well-being of individuals and can be measured by asking them about their feelings – subjective well-being.”

So the “happiness index” isn’t about happiness per se, it’s about well being.  Not the same, in fact something which is increasingly important and potentially more valuable to understand than an easy corruptible term like happiness.  But even so, how do we measure well being. Back to ONS:

“As we define it, well-being includes both subjective and objective measures. It includes feelings of happiness and other aspects of subjective well-being, such as feeling that one’s activities are worthwhile, or being satisfied with family relationships. It also includes aspects of well-being which can be measured by more objective approaches, such as life expectancy and educational achievements.”

So overall the well being measure is a complex metric to construct and accurately measure. Even the “objective” measure are open to subjective and political interpretation.

However, in trying to measure these elements on such a large scale there is a great danger in the detail being lost. And in this case it is the feelings of individuals.  If we are judged to have a collectively high level of well being, where does that leave those who, for a variety of reasons, have a lower level of well being. What about those, to go back to the popular media presentation, who aren’t “happy”?  How do we even know when we are or are not happy?

I suppose I have two main concerns. The first is the manner is which this tool has been reported.  The media (in part driven by ONS’s use of the word in it’s own press release and report) have picked out a very emotive term, happiness, to mask a multitude of sins. Discussion of these merits more room and words than I have available here and there are useful discussions already taking place through organisations such as the New Economic Foundation. However, to write off ONS’s attempts as a waste of money as some seem to suggest misses the value in understanding the costs and benefits of modern life. If taken seriously it might eventually help identify ways in which we can change to avoid the costs, for example reducing stress and anxiety associated with the pursuit of material gains.  So it is a start but is not and never should be seen as a quick fix mark of how happy or indeed how well-off we are.

Secondly, and very much allied to the first concern, is an unease with measuring something which individuals have difficulty identifying themselves.  It is extremely difficult to measure our own happiness, stress, anxiety or mood. I know, I’ve tried. There are a whole range of books out there which sell themselves on their ability to show you how to measure how happy you are. I tried one recently and gave up, it made me more anxious. There are online tests that you can take to measure how stressed you are: the BBC are running an experimental stress test which is stressful in itself. And there tools out there which help you “monitor your mood”, Moodscope being an example.  Yet for all the value these purport to offer (and which others might find), I have found them stressful to use, limited in the meaning they offer and ultimately counter-productive.

However, to say that trying to identify and gauge one’s own stress and happiness is worthless would be wrong. I merely haven’t found the ways and means which are appropriate and meaningful to me and perhaps in looking for a value I and others are missing the point. Let’s look at it from a different perspective. If you asked me now if I was happy I would say that I am particularly unhappy. Ask me why I am and I can discuss a host of factors from the immediate incidents of the day to longer-term dissatisfactions with my life.  Now ask me to put a measure on it and I am stuck.  And this is perhaps the lesson. Whilst we get fixated on amounts and generalisations, the devil is in the detail.  Addressing my unhappiness is not about reducing it from say a 6 to a 5, rather it is about addressing the factors which cause it. In many ways they can be as hard to identify but ultimately much more worthwhile in addressing.

In sticking it to the man, there is a real measure of the (wo)man. Attention to detail and feeling is the key.

May the road rise with you

So my previous posts over the last week or so have been a bit negative, a bit flat which of course is strange given the nature of the Tour de France over the same period.  Once again I can’t quite put my finger on the reasons but whilst the rest o the world is wowed by the continued exploits of some of the best, committed and, some might say, insane sportsmen in the world I’ve been uninspired, fidgety and, dare I say it, bored.  How I’d love to be on the edge of my seat gripped by the action. Instead I just feel exhausted and flat, an underlying nervous tension eating away.  Perhaps this is to do with a lot of other things going on in life – the ongoing tensions over work, the feeling that I’m drifting and perhaps most of all the inability to switch off.  These were things that I thought I’d conquered but it just goes to show how life isn’t that straightforward. It’s a bit like Alberto Contador – he’s won 3 (possibly 2) Tours, 2 Giros and 1 Vuelta but yesterday showed his fallibility and weaknesses and of course the need to fight back.  So it is for everyone in different parts of their lives. The cynical amongst you might even point to the similarity in the absence of drugs in this comparison but let’s not entertain that for long.  So firstly a brief apology that I’ve been brining the mood down, secondly that there’s some work to do and don’t forget it, and finally that I still need that help and support both a pat on the back and a kick up the bum. Your help in the latter is very much appreciated.

…but sometimes you speak too soon….

Perhaps I was a little premature in my earlier post.  Whilst still a way from being a classic, today at least saw the touch paper ignited effectively.  And whilst the determination was clear to see in the attacks of Contador, Evans and Sanchez, the Schlecks, Andy in particular, did themselves no favours at all.  I’m sure they are having an awkward enough evening already and their comments from Sunday are likely being quoted back at them across cyberspace if not around the dinner table, but today they were given a lesson in how to make attacking riding pay.  And to cap it all by, in the words of Chris Boardman, “throwing everything out of the pram” shows they are a long way from being Tour champions.  In highlighting their petulance, I can only take my hat off to Thomas Voeckler.  I did him a disservice in my previous post and his attacking style is a welcome relief in any race. To be still in yellow tonight highlights his guts and determination and is the colour that every Tour needs.  As I said to MrsAB this evening, this race is between Evans, Contador and Voeckler. Maybe, just maybe, there is hope. We’ll see.

After real classics, the Tour is a bore?

Over the last week I’ve seen a lot of reference made to this year’s Tour being a “classic”. Yet I’m not quite seeing what others perhaps are.  For me this year’s Tour is becoming increasingly boring as spectacle and a let down in terms of the main prize, culminating in Saturday afternoon’s ultimately lame Pyrenean stalemate. There is something not quite right. As alluded to in the first week of the race there is a lot of moaning and this has continued. The Schlecks on Saturday complained of nobody else attacking on Plateau de Beille. But a long hard look in the mirror (in Andy’s case the rear view mirror he uses to check that his brother is still in tow) should indicate to them that a) if they are the only two who can attack they should have walked all over their rivals that afternoon but b) there is something stopping them from doing this be it fraternal fascinations or just non-existent self confidence.  You could forgive the race if this was a one-off but it is not. The Schlecks have been here before in other races and the Pyrenees have now gone without any significant impact on the general classification. When the French talk about disregard for tradition I can see no more fitting example.

Yes, it is true that we have seen action elsewhere and for that I (and many others) can only be extremely grateful. But does this make it a Classic Tour? In the words of Nikki Terpstra, “you must be a sprinter or climber to win a stage in the Tour”. Whilst Cav, Farrar and Greipel have delivered the fringe show (and Hushovd takes a mountain stage for the sprinters with a breakaway!) the GC contenders and climbers have yet to deliver on the main show.  For me Classic Tours have revolved around the race for Yellow – Richard Moore’s “Slaying the Badger” is a narrative on a true classic Tour, the action away from the fight between LeMond and Hinault merely context; my first Tour viewing of 1989 will forever be a classic because of the yo-yo between Laurent Fignon and LeMond.  There are many others. The key factor in these is the intensity of the fight between the leaders, the chances taken, the attacks made. Whilst this year has produced some interesting stage winners, the classic element is, at the moment, lacking. We could point to Thomas Voeckler’s surprising retention of the lead as an indicator of a classic but this owes as much to do with the lack of attacking by the main rivals as it does his abilities, as he himself suggests in his interviews, and some might say the manner in which he took the lead.  Voeckler has hung on after an attack (perhaps the favourites could learn here) and that is not enough for a classic. Indeed, if Miguel Indurain was called boring for winning Tours in the time trial, is this much better?  I’m sorry, I’m just not seeing it.

Perhaps this is a reflection of my own personal mood? Maybe its the effect of a leveling playing field as PEDs become fewer? Or it could be that I am the only one who doesn’t “get it” this year?  Yet even if the Pyrenees were a blip, my heart sank on reading the news that the Galibier has had, and is due to get more, snow. With this fabled climb now playing a pivotal role in the remaining mountain stages of the race, its loss to climatic misfortune would merely compound the disappointment of the non-race on Friday and Sunday.  For 2011 to be a classic for me something special is going to have to happen to make it so. There are now five stages for this to happen. I’m losing hope.

Cake and Eat It?

Richard Williams is not my favourite sports journalist so it perhaps not that much of a surprise that this morning’s Guardian report on the Tour de France got my back up.  His reporting on the 2007 and 2008 Tours was almost vendetta like in its tone. We all know the sport has its problems but Williams’ approach was to kick the battered and bleeding body to see if the life could be finally sucked from it. It was almost as if he didn’t want to be there (his usual assignments are Formula 1 and football!).  Imagine then reading today’s article that attacked this year’s race for a lack of interest amongst the front runners. Are we watching the same race Richard or are you merely interested in the headlines?  Admittedly the front runners have yet to play serious hands and I have thought that it is far from a classic in that respect. Yet there has been enough action to make it ever changing and interesting to watch.  After all, the Tour is many races within one, this is its beauty.  However, this is just part of the issue here. Williams’ feels that the panache of previous editions is missing. But weren’t these editions in your view drug fuelled? If, as we all hope, this year’s edition has fewer if not no doped riders at its helm then is this a case of wanting your cake and eating it?  Whilst there is a place for critical and investigative journalism, as has been highlighted elsewhere there is a responsibility to do this within sensible parameters. Bring back William Fotheringham.