Monday, June 05, 2006

Friends and Social Capital

Our milkman, Arthur, a lovely chap, who delivers our milk to our doorstep in all sorts of weathers, was informed of THE GREAT HANDBAG ROBBERY last time he came to collect his money. Now Arthur usually has some interesting tale to relate, and this time he told me about pensioners who ask him to fetch his money from their drawer, or give him their purse and tell him to help himself. He hates this, he says, makes him feel responsible for them in some way, and highlights how vulnerable and trusting these elderly people are, and indeed he knew several who had been duped - the usual tactic of distraction by one person while the other person helps himself to the contents of the aforementioned drawer.

According to the most recent edition of the happiness programme this generation of people who were born before the second world war are the most trusting in society - and the most happy (except, presumably, immediately after being burgled). And, strangely enough, it is the war that is the cause. The campaign of mass bombing did not cause society to break up (as planned) but caused it to come together. The incidence of civilian neuroses decreased and there was a greater sense of community as people supported each other. Several people who lived during the blitz (including my mother-in-law) say it was the happiest time in their lives. This sense of community spirit continued during the post war years of austerity in clubs, societies and institutions, and only petered out when society became more affluent - and unhappy. The number of people claiming to be happy has declined from over a half in the post war years to just a third now.

Another name for community spirit is 'social capital' which according to this programme depends on the number of social ties that we have. The sum of the number of ties that we have - both social and those within the family - are, apparently, a good predictor of happiness. Since the post war years people have spread out, left the places where they were born - which destroyed one set of social ties - and began to commute - which prevented the formation of new ties. It is calculated that every ten minutes of commuting cuts social ties by ten per cent. So commuting makes people less happy and 'getting on your bike' to find work - the advice meted out by the governement of one Margaret Thatcher (AKA milk-snatcher - she withdrew an important free source of nutrition from school-children at the beginning of the seventies) is one way of making a more miserable society.

Another way of making people more miserable is to introduce television. I have remarked before that I have noticed that it is possible for people to confuse soap operas with reality because the soap opera might be the only source of social contact that they have. But according to the government of Bhutan I have this the wrong way around and the soap opera itself can be the cause of unhappiness and isolation. When TV was introduced to the state in 1999 they found that people quickly became addicted to the Indian soap operas, watching them in preference to interacting with the people around them because it is easier to watch than interact, and community spirit was lost. So they cut out some TV channels - notably the wrestling and many of the soaps - but kept the ones they found were of some good - the discovery channels and the news programmes.

So, I guess the main message from this programme is one way to increase happiness is to 'make friends rather than watch Friends', and work hard to establish your own social network - which these days may include a web of virtual friends as well as real ones perhaps.


Blogger Lee said...

This 'social capital' is ignored far too much in discussions of the Third World. It helps explain a lot of the happiness I saw under what we might interpret as dire circumstances in Africa (not that there aren't dire ones, of course).

Mon Jun 05, 10:47:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, that is hardly ever mentioned at all, is it? Definitely something to consider as well as everything else, I should think.

Mon Jun 05, 03:53:00 pm  
Blogger Sarah Cuthbertson said...

There's a perceptive piece about happiness on Michael Gilleland's blog which you might enjoy. It certainly reminded me of something I needed to be reminded of. I can't do the hyperlink but here's the URL:

Sat Jun 10, 12:39:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Sarah - interesting piece.

Sat Jun 10, 11:26:00 pm  

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