Unhappy? Don’t blame the government, it’s probably your marriage

Marriage is one of the metrics to be included in the Coalition’s soon-to-launch ‘well-being index’, as Clegg and Cameron wave away questions of social collapse to ask, with melting sincerity, if we are truly happy. But how do we measure marital bliss? And is happiness all its cracked up to be?
Hannah Forbes Black
6 March 2011

Can you imagine an animal with two heads, eight limbs, and both kinds of genitals? This mindboggling beast is drawn not from sci-fi pornography but from a Christian idea of marriage. As enthusiastic proponent CS Lewis wrote, “A man and wife are to be regarded as a single organism… The inventor of the human machine [God] was telling us that its two halves, the male and the female, were made to be combined together in pairs, not simply on the sexual level, but totally combined.” This total combination of parts, this simultaneous annihilation and completion of the one in the other, is the terrifying norm that assails us in the form of pop songs, romantic comedies and, now, political policy. Because the “human machine” is at maximal efficiency when paired with a counterpart, marriage is one of the metrics to be included in the Coalition’s soon-to-launch ‘happiness index’.

The concept of Gross National Happiness originated in Bhutan (which held its first democratic elections in 2008, showing that while marriage may be necessary for national happiness, democracy is apparently not) and has recently been endorsed by the celebrity economists Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz. As the economy collapses, or briefly rights itself to prepare for the next collapse, we are encouraged to refocus our attention away from the financial crisis and instead look inwards. With a determined irrelevance that bears comparison with the non-resignation speech in which Mubarak reassured an incendiary Egypt that they were all still his beloved children, Clegg and Cameron wave away questions of social collapse to ask, with melting sincerity, if we are truly happy. Now that we have given up on actually producing anything with which to feed the economy, we are reduced to dragging raw human emotion into the market, like victims of a midwinter siege burning furniture and books to keep warm.

Cameron/Clegg would have us, to paraphrase Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “always thinking about our happiness and our unhappiness”. But you don’t have to have had an insane doomed love affair with a handsome soldier to know that the times when we think about happiness are when we’re unhappy (although if you don’t know this yet, an insane doomed love affair is a quick way to learn). Nothing is more antithetical to the project of happiness than approaching it head-on. Yet in the brave new Big Society, the Current Financial Climate (CFC) demands that citizens step up to the task of dealing personally with what used to be dealt with socially. Don’t you know there’s a deficit on? Responsibility and risk are downshifting, and the burden that ostensibly rests on the shoulders of our politicians is now increasingly a yoke for our own backs. Unhappy with life? Don’t blame the macroeconomic forces that have rendered your job non-existent and your mortgage unpayable: it’s probably your fault for not tending to your marriage. Everyone knows now, in the self-help parlance of the day, that love must be worked on – it is another form of unpaid social labour, a Big Society volunteering opportunity for which you don’t even need to leave the house.

“Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product,” a Bhutanese slogan proclaims, as if happiness were something totally independent of, say, one’s ability to find meaningful work or make enough money to feed oneself. It is only by coy pretence that politicians in thrall to the great machine of economics can temporarily shrug off their financial fixation to declare, in effect, “Who cares about money? What we’re interested in is how you feel.” Are we a psychiatric experiment? Like the scientists who provided baby monkeys with ‘wire mothers’ who dispensed milk and electric shocks, and then took notes as the traumatized animals sought solace from cuddly toys, we turn from the spiky tit of the crisis-ridden markets to snuggle up against the reassuring but empty cloth mother of the happiness index. Unfortunately I didn’t just invent that nauseating monkey experiment – it was intended to prove that human babies need affection as well as food to ensure healthy development. The lesson has been absorbed by child psychology, but in Cameron’s happy-clappy politics we are labouring under the schizoid illusion that happiness and its constituent parts can be provided separately, as if happiness were a mystic and transcendental state – GNH did, after all, first emerge in Buddhist Bhutan – rather than something that can only happen when you’ve got a roof over your head and enough to eat.

All this is to ignore the even more glaring problem with measuring marital happiness, which is that no one has any idea what it is. I have never been married myself but a mental stocktaking of marriages I have known suggests that staying or not staying together is a near-arbitrary decision that has more to do with the couple’s levels of stubbornness and/or inertia than with the quality of the relationship. There is a kind of person who, faced with a spouse from whom the nuptial sheen has faded, is nevertheless invested in the promise of a shared life, and there is the kind of person who cuts and runs. We describe adulterers as ‘unfaithful’ with reason – monogamy is above all else a mad act of faith that pays off to the degree disbelief can be suspended. Sober investment is one model for marriage, but there’s also a kind of Elizabeth Taylor, eighth-time-lucky short-selling model, in which you invest your emotional energy not in long-term growth but in the promise of collapse. If relational happiness were a rational accumulative process, then we wouldn’t have the inner life as we know it. Whether or not we want the inner life as we know it is another question – a question that, come to think of it, might be one of the underlying motives of the happiness index. Measuring happiness now could help us formulate the happiness to come: the index could lay the ground for re-education camps in which uncooperatively gloomy citizens are programmed into joy and made ready to go shopping.  

Contra Stiglitz/Sen and Cameron/Clegg (these cute pairings perhaps offered as a marital formula for us to emulate), I propose a National Unhappiness Index. It would be very similar to those Q&A interviews in women’s magazines where sexy male actors titillate readers by recounting when they last cried and/or had their heart broken – or, better still, it would be just like the scene in the film Garden State, where Natalie Portman crouches in the bath with her hitherto emotionally numb boyfriend, played by Zach Braff, and catches a single tear in a cup as he experiences his first authentic feeling in years. Our culture demands of us that we feel, not think: like a gigantic Natalie Portman, the Coalition will hold a cup to our eye and milk our tears, triumphantly carrying off their little hoard to pour into the empty national coffers. 

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