Friday, 26 November 2010

Gross Happiness Product

How many of us sit there working our way through Facebook’s greatest quizes “what colour is your soul”,  or “what kind of job should you have”.   How happy do we feel afterward getting the results.  Today I found out that I’m “simply normal”  My “soul is red”  and I’m “Monica from friends”. 

These are three things I already knew.  Facebook even has an app to work out the percentage of your days spent on Facebook working out things you already knew.

Familiar endings provide best re-run potential.  No one in their right mind would buy Sixth Sense on DVD having already watched it.  M Night Shyamalan really didn’t have DVD afterlife in mind. However you might like to buy The Hangover for instance.

A quick look at 2009’s best selling DVDs shows how re-run potential works; Twilight, Transformers, Mall Cop, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, all firmly conform to genre expectation.
The truth is, we absolutely polls and quizzes. We are addicted to them.  

News voraciously grabs statistics, spilling out news stories like genre aisles at Water stones: political thriller, historical drama, disaster, war drama, crime fiction. You pick, according to your tastes. It has very little to do with everyday life, but enforces the "habitus” of unquestioned rules as French critic Bourdieu puts it .

For the student riots you can pick a front cover of Crime- Fiction featuring pictures of smashed glass, or a lone girl guarding a police van take by The Metro;  a heart-warming, understated holiday read.  

Even the less numerical among us can’t avert our eyes from the top super-food to eat this week, the university league tables,  how many women readers would recommend Herbal Essences conditioner to their friends. 

The Happiness Index.
The Coalition government’s proposed mass poll named “The Happiness Index” criticised as a smokescreen, is actually a rather clever plan, afterall,  the government needs to look like it has a heart. 

Following in the tradition of a Himalayan kingdom’s plan in the 1970’s to replace GDP with Gross National Happiness,  the government is utilising the life affirming power of polls abundant on Facebook and other social networks.
It’s a poll to which we already know the answers.  A poll which might as well be commissioned by L’Oreal .

The result will be as predictable as Costas “ 7 out of 10 coffee lovers prefer Costa”   (small print: Cappuccinos) but when it comes out we will voraciously devour it for glimmers of meaning.

Will that satisfy us? 

NO. Straight after in the evening you will zone into more relaxing quiz taking along the lines of “What should your name be?” and spend the night subconsciously thinking that destiny (the mystical orthodoxy of Facebook) decreed you to have this new name.

The feature that makes this poll different from a Facebook poll is that some authoritative organisation has been paid to put their stamp of approval on it: The British Skin Foundation, The Institute of Trichologists, The Cocoa Foundation.

Companies want the endorsement of researchers; researchers continue to exist thanks to companies with a lot of money to spend.

The Office of National Statistics will be gathering data for The Happiness Index. This government statistics engine accounts for some 4/5 of all national stats.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy is issuing a similar gauge because rioters smashing things up, blocking petrol stations and halting flights isn’t clear enough to forecast national mood; we need it in digestible percentages.  

Polls are “easy-reading in a society where news is often read on the go while travelling. Here’s one, “Chocolate makes you depressed "   it’s readable, relevant and at first glance appears substantiated.

Chocolate makes you depressed- research in archives of internal medicine shows that those who eat at least a bar every week are more glum than those who only eat chocolate now and again.”

Fair enough.  A science based think tank has put their stamp on it, but let’s look at the next paragraph.

“Dr Natalie Rose....from the University of California says there are many possible explanations for their may simply be that people who are depressed crave chocolate as a self treatment to lift the mood”.  

Oh dear so you’re giving us lifestyle altering information that hasn’t yet been proved. How come?

“As this study shows, more research is needed to determine exactly what the relationship between chocolate and our mood is”.

We’ve just sat and read something we already knew.

Sound familiar?

It appeals to us as an audience who like their story diet exactly the way it is.
In our capital society, everyone has a vested interest because everyone needs money.

So the NHS with a vested interest in promoting nicotine patches sponsors a survey of the effects of passive smoking. Two completely different results are had if you reword your question. 

“Do you think people should have the right to smoke if they choose”?  Appeals to a sense of freedom of action, whilst
“Do you think smokers are a threat to the health of non smokers?” appeals to health fears.

If the poll doesn’t work the way you want, reword your questions;   if Ireland says no to joining the E.U, you reword the way you ask and offer more money until they say ‘go on then’.

We have to accept statistic's life affirming function and not take them too seriously. After all, we wouldn’t sue if we had followed our horoscope into disaster would we?  Gross Happiness Product instead of GDP is a nice thought though.

What do you think?   Comments.

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