Christian inheritance allows us to face dismal times with hope in our hearts

Opinion: the role of money in promoting happiness is open to very serious doubt

One analysis would suggest that we are happy because Irish glasses are always on the way to being full. Photograph: PA

One analysis would suggest that we are happy because Irish glasses are always on the way to being full. Photograph: PA

Fri, Jun 7, 2013, 00:00

An apparent conundrum of our continuing economic chassis is the consistent returning of opinion poll figures in which Irish people report continuing high levels of “life satisfaction”. This seems to run against the prevailing pessimistic analysis of events in the public realm and on this account tends to be reported uncomprehendingly by those who keep us up to date with the bad news.

This week, the publication of the OECD’s Better Life Index was described in reports as presenting one of the “paradoxes” of the economic collapse. The index, which measures variables relating to lifestyle and outlook under various headings – including health, income, housing, education, community and civic engagement – found that Ireland reports a life satisfaction measure of 7 out of 10, above the OECD average of 6.6. This brings us within a yahoo of Australia, which topped the table at 7.2. Ireland also recorded higher “happiness” levels than both Germany, our new masters, and Britain, our previous ones.

Often, such findings are dismissed as reflecting an emotional dualism in the Irish personality: we are by nature fatalistic, prepared to put up with more than other peoples, and easily diverted from social anger by a bogus sanguinity which sees the glass as half full. Another analysis might put our “happiness” down to the fact that Irish glasses are indeed always either half-full or lined up awaiting the barman’s attention.

Such findings appear to highlight a division not usually referred to in the media-hosted public discourse – between the content of the citizen’s public imagination and the private, inner life of the human being. More and more, media speak not to human beings per se but to a dimension of the individual as member of some collective entity: citizenship, democratic responses, consumer behaviour, employment etc. Under these headings, the average phone-in radio show confirms that people are more inclined to think of themselves as “unhappy”. Yet, five in six Irish people told the OECD researchers that, on any given day, they experienced “more positive than negative experiences”. On this indicator alone, it is clear that media preoccupied with economic misery offer a deficient mechanism for reflecting the everyday lives and total outlooks of human beings.

The assumption of most contemporary current affairs conversations is that happiness occurs in some fixed relationship with growth figures. The available science contradicts this, indicating that the relationship between money and happiness runs parallel up to the point where basic needs are met, but diverges sharply thereafter. Indeed, the science goes further, revealing that the more emphasis people place on money, the more reduced is their sense of well-being, and this remains true whether they end up rich or poor.

But, despite the endless diet of doom and gloom that has characterised the mainstream media commentary for five years, many Irish people, it seems, remain capable of seeing their lives in ways that cannot be accounted for by measurements of money or its absence. The convoluted attempts to explain this “paradox” are endlessly fascinating for their attempts to ignore the most obvious factor.

At the core of Irish civilisations for 1,500 years, the ideas of hope and redemption loosed in the human imagination by the Incarnation have driven the striving of Irish people through unbelievable depths of adversity. For many of us, in spite of the best efforts of the tiger generation of secular atheists, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is by far the most important thing we have ever heard of, an event rendering everything utterly different from if it had not occurred.

Due to the long attrition of reductive commentary about religion, this will be interpreted as referring to a capacity of human beings to discount earthly misfortune in favour of a focus on the hereafter. But a happy afterlife following a miserable earthly existence is not actually what Christianity proposes, nor is it what most Christians – including Irish Christians – tend to understand. The religious gaze may well be focused on the horizon, but the purpose and outcomes of this focus are not entirely fixated on the next world.

Rather, by opening up earthly existence to eternal possibilities, the religious hypothesis alters the very nature of reality, lifting the burden of meaninglessness from human shoulders and offering a sense of confidence that invigorates every pulse of human activity. In a religious culture, even non-believers benefit from this, by virtue of breathing in the certainty and hope generated in the collective imagination by the believing element.

Christ’s proposal to humankind has endured far more keenly in the hearts of human beings than the proposals of, for example, Marx or Keynes – even in people who remain unconscious of its everyday influence on them. In spite of the relentless efforts of campaigning secularists and self-styled rationalists, the hope extended by that proposal still endures in the very DNA of most Irish people, who are, on this account, able to face a dismal material outlook with hearts full of hope.

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