Gloomy view of Irish society a self-fulfilling prophecy

AND SO we come to the end of, allegedly, the most “depressing” week of the year

AND SO we come to the end of, allegedly, the most “depressing” week of the year. Every year, about this time, we are reminded of Welsh psychologist Dr Cliff Arnall and his mathematical formula which claims to show that – taking into account the shortened period of daylight, weather, levels of personal debt, days elapsed since Christmas and failed new year’s resolutions – the week beginning with the third Monday of January is the year’s “gloomiest” period.

It seems to me, listening year after year to current affairs presenters and disc jockeys repeating this perennial set piece, that such thinking must surely become contagious. If all of us are being told at the same time that we should be feeling downbeat, isn’t it likely that’s how we’re going to feel?

Or at least might not most of us presume that the rest of us are feeling pessimistic and therefore regard the day as something to be endured rather than enjoyed?

Oddly, it doesn’t seem to work quite like this. Another of the perennial set pieces that from time to time lights up our media firmament is the survey revealing that, despite more than 1,000 days of relentlessly pessimistic coverage of the economy, we Irish remain happy.

A March 2009 survey, six months into economic Armageddon, found that we were still “the happiest, healthiest and most satisfied people in the EU”. A September 2010 study placed us as “among the happiest and most charitable people in the world”, while another, a month later, informed us that we were less likely to be sick or depressed than our European neighbours.

Only last October, a “Eurobarometer” survey found that some 90 per cent of us are “very” or “fairly” satisfied with the lives we lead. And yet, a fortnight ago, the National Consumer Agency highlighted what appeared to be acute financial worries among the population, with one in three Irish people concerned about not having enough money to meet everyday expenses.

It all seems to come down to what question is asked – and perhaps who is asking. Confronted by a question about how “happy” we are, we seem immediately to categorise the issue as either “existential” or “political/economic”, and answer accordingly.

That Eurobarometer survey also indicated that, when people were asked questions clearly relating to the economy, their responses reversed those given to the general questions. Just 4 per cent of respondents said they were satisfied with the national economy, compared to an EU average of 30 per cent. And yet, asked a more general question about the outlook for the next year, only 9 per cent of us expected things to get worse, placing us just marginally below the EU average of 14 per cent.

I suppose there are different ways of interpreting these anomalies, but to me it seems that people divide their responses between what they have been conditioned to think as a result of tuning into the everyday collective discussions and what they really feel, looking at their lives in a broader context. Economically, we are inconsolable; existentially, we are happy enough.

I have a new game I play with friends. It works off having a bet about whether certain words will crop up within a minute of turning on the radio. First, we agree a selection of words associated with economics – say, "levy", "credit", "liabilities", "income", "revenue", "compliance", "fiscal" "growth", "bankrupt", and then switch on Morning Ireland,Pat Kenny or George Hook. If one of the words crops up within 60 seconds, I win.

I nearly always do.

A short time listening to such programmes leads unavoidably to the conclusion that the version of the world being offered derives from a mindset intent upon spreading anxiety and pessimism. Minute to minute, we are told how worried we should be and what we should worry about next. If you listened a lot, you could easily get to thinking that the future is irredeemably bleak and that everyone else seems to realise this except yourself. And yet, survey after survey tells us otherwise.

Even if we had never heard of the Easterlin Paradox, we would probably intuit that the relationship between money and happiness is not straightforward. Money is hard-wired to human happiness up to the point where basic needs are met, but beyond that ceases to be a straightforward indicator of wellbeing. Most current affairs discussions, however, seem to assume that the relationship between money and happiness is absolute and open-ended.

It is at best a partial version of human existence that reduces everything to earnings, outputs, profits and deductions. But journalism by nature requires figures, measurements, statistics, in order to present what seems like an authoritative view of what matters. Economics, however discredited as a science or interpretation of reality, provides a relatively convenient way of describing what seems to be happening in the world.

People, though, are not so easily “described”, in the totality of their humanity and desires. Underneath the surface guises described as “consumer”, “commuter” and “worker”, behind the economic categories headed “bed-nights”, “absenteeism” and “footfall” – other things are going on.

And journalism, for whatever reason, seems increasingly ill-equipped to describe what these “other things” are.