It’s time for a Ministry of Happiness
25 September 2018 09:13
On a post-work date – the kind upon which I sometimes, reluctantly, drag myself – I was walking through the park with a guy, when we stopped at the swings.
Or, rather, I stopped at the swings. My companion stopped because he couldn’t quite believe his eyes when he saw that the elegantly-dressed girl whom he’d just been wining and dining had fit her arse into a child-size seat, and was now loudly calling for him to push the swing. After his initial shock subsided, he stuttered: ‘Aren’t you… embarrassed… to be seen… like this?’
I’m pleased to say that his attempt to ‘adult-shame’ me didn’t make me get off the swings. But his reproach has been on my mind ever since.
When did we all grow up? What is the official ‘cut off’ age? Why are adults allowed to be foolish and let go only when drunk or high on drugs? No wonder the more liberated among us try to diversify our sex lives and – thanks to a suppressed sense of adventure – explore all sorts of sexual transgressions. For today’s adults, it’s the only form of play that’s sanctioned – and, even then, usually behind closed doors.
That’s not enough. I want to climb trees for fun (and not be frowned upon), zipwire to work, and play dodgeball or hide-and-seek on a date… Instead, I’m forced by the world around me to confirm to the idea of what an adult should be and do. I try to resist but it doesn’t always work.
When I look around the city, I see that routine has soaked through absolutely everything. The people who designed our public transport, offices, and houses were doubtless very intelligent. But playful they were not.
Art shouldn’t be something we only get to see at the weekend in a gallery. Games and playfulness shouldn’t be confined to gyms, theme-parks or funfairs. Bring them out into the everyday world around us. Make them an integral part of our daily lives.
First things first. If we banned cars from city centres – with only buses, special transport services and taxis allowed on main streets – we could open up these spaces for other, healthier and more sustainable forms of transport, like bikes and scooters, cable cars, or even zip wires. We’d enhance public safety and drastically reduce air and noise pollution. Electric trucks could make their deliveries at night.
Many cities outside the UK are already doing this. Oslo plans to prohibit all cars from its city centre by 2019, paving the way to a nationwide ban in urban areas. Starting in November this year, Madrid will bar non-resident vehicles from its centre. Why is London – so often, in the past, the city that set global trends – now lagging behind?
Yes, the capital is the seat of monarchy and government, the home of Parliament, and the heart of the nation’s financial sector. All of which is glorious. But I’ll be honest: I also want London to become a vast theme park, so that Homo Sapiens can also be Homo Ludens.
Install swings at bus stops alongside the traditional dreary benches, so that 5-10 minutes of waiting isn’t wasted on impatient tedium. There is no intrinsic reason why commuting should be a boring experience to be dreaded every morning and evening. If we make the carriages fun to be in, we can turn commuting into another form of going out.
What about a cinema carriage on the tube, in partnership with Curzon or Cineworld, or a poetry bar carriage where commuters could buy snacks and beverages while listening to the latest poets or readings from the classics? Or a speed-dating carriage? Or a yoga carriage in partnership with an entrepreneurial gym chain?
This would be an easy way for Transport for London to secure extra revenue, while providing a transformed passenger experience. In Finland, there are already playgrounds on trains, with books, slides, toy cars and castles to occupy children on long journeys. Of course, room would have to be found on our trains and tube carriages for such activities. But the extra revenues that these schemes would raise ought to cover that cost: everybody wins.
Next, give nature a greater role in urban life. Double or even triple the space allotted to trees and greenery in the cities. Parks shouldn’t be torn patches of nature, but a continuous corridor of green woven into the landscape. Numerous (1,2,3,4,5, etc) scientific studies show that trees calm us and make us healthier. They will also give us air that we aren’t scared to breathe.
So: plant trees, cover roofs with grass, build artificial waterfalls, and embed ponds and streams teeming with fish into the landscape. With cars out of the equation and green corridors criss-crossing the city, we might also tempt animals to venture further afield, and get to see squirrels, hedgehogs and hares in places other than their park ghettos.
But stitching fun into our daily lives isn’t just a matter of improving urban infrastructure. We need to work less, so that we’ve got more time to live. We are lucky to be alive. The odds against being alive on a habitable planet in conditions of declining scarcity are so spectacularly high that it is criminal to waste so much time on drudgery. We are conditioned to accept the fact that – leaving aside food consumption – we are only left with 3-4 hours a day in which to do the things we enjoy. We spend the weekends trying to catch up on sleep, because we are so exhausted. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In fact, it can’t be. The amazing advances made in artificial intelligence and the impending impact of automation upon work – a process which has only just begun – mean that we will soon have a lot more spare time to fill, whether we like it or not. In preparation for this revolution in employment practice, we should consider gradually transferring to a shorter working day and a four-day working week for all.
It already makes sense for business, as some trials have already shown. The New Zealand trustee company, Perpetual Guardian, declared their four-day week trial for their 240 employees an unmitigated success as workers became more focused and their productivity increased. Employees at one Welsh company are already being paid a full salary for four days work. Production is on the rise, and the business is expanding outside Wales.
We should also take steps to expose ourselves to less unhappiness in our news consumption. I am a hard-liner on this matter, and would go so far as to suggest that there should be a formal requirement policed by Ofcom and the BBC’s overlords for a certain percentage of all broadcast news to be positive. Others would doubtless prefer a more evolutionary cultural change in media practice. But a change there must be if we are not to sink into an abyss of polarisation and despondency.
The UK came a miserable 19th place in the World Happiness Index this year. Perhaps Brexit will lift everyone’s spirits up in 2019… and, then again, perhaps not. Let’s just say we can’t count on it.
Admirably, the government this year introduced the position of Minister for Loneliness, a role now held by Tracey Crouch. It’s a fantastic initiative, intended to address a specific aspect of unhappiness. Some countries go further. In 2016, UAE appointed its first Minister of State for Happiness and Wellbeing.
David Cameron’s government toyed with these ideas but didn’t make much headway – austerity and happiness being hard to combine as dual strategies. But the mood of anxiety, mutual suspicion and even apocalypticism that has taken hold since the upheavals of 2016 is now what I would call a national crisis. Something must be done. We need leadership to set up the framework for a radical change. Bring on the Ministry of Happiness.