Saturday, 27 November 2010


Having wittered on about the town of St Andrews recently, I now find that St Andrews Day, a moment when we remember Scotland’s patron saint, is almost upon us. So how will we be celebrating this momentous event? Erm, dunno.

Unlike the Norwegian National Day, 17th May, where nobody works, everyone tidies up their surroundings and themselves, parades about in national dress, and ends the day with a big knees-up, we in Scotland are rather stumped when it comes to 30th November. It looks like we’ll be spending the day shovelling snow.

However, this year I have vowed to spend a ‘wee mintie’ thinking about my nation, rather in the spirit of Hugh MacDiarmid’s ’Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle’. You will know that this long poem is an intellectual and emotional contemplation of the condition of Scotland. So, I thought I’d take a moment, and being too short of time to enjoy a wee dram, I’ll act out ‘Sober Woman Looks at a Thistle’ instead.

Apart from the fact that it will be St Andrews Day, I have another reason for this naval-gazing. We’ve all been asked to measure our happiness. Prime Minister David Cameron, wants us all, throughout the UK, to consider how happy we are on a scale from 1 to 10. He wants to measure our General Wellbeing (GWB) in addition to our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in order to evaluate the UK’s success. The office of National Statistics is charged with gauging our happiness, so that a ‘happiness index’ might be created.

The New Economics Foundation measured European levels of wellbeing recently and ranked the UK 13th out of 22. On a global scale, the NEF found Costa Rica was top of their Happy Planet index, a system which measures a combination of human wellbeing with environmental sustainability.

And, guess which nation was at the top of the Legatum Prosperity Index (a system which measures personal freedom, entrepreneurship, health, good governance and economic performance)? Norway, of course.

But are we Brits, and we Scots, really as unhappy as our low score in these studies might suggest? I haven’t noticed every Norwegian I ever meet being in a state of permanent euphoria any more than every Scot is in a state of misery (didn’t you know, the ‘dour Scot’ is only an act with which to irritate those south of the border? After all, being miserable can be enormously enjoyable....nobody can tell me the Drunk Man Looking at the Thistle wasn’t thoroughly enjoying himself).

However, I do sometimes wonder if we forget to notice when we are happy. We are all so busy, it’s too easy to concentrate on our problems rather than our successes. Perhaps we should be looking across the pond.

Recently, our American friends have been thankful, thankful, thankful as they sit down with their families to a Thanksgiving Dinner where all manner of gratitude is expressed from the personal to the global. In 1863, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving on the third Thursday of November. But its origins lay as far back as 1619 with a thanksgiving ceremony for the colony of Virginia. However, the ‘First Thanksgiving’ is generally recognised as taking place in 1621 when thanks was given to God for helping the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony to survive. The settlers held a harvest feast which lasted three days and fed 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans. It seems no surprise that the origins of thanksgiving are connected to nature, the earth and all that it provides.

We Brits, with our stiff-upper-lips, might be tempted to think Thanksgiving is a bit soppy, and all this talk of happiness is verging on the psychobabble. But I wonder if an official day for a nation to reflect upon the good things in life makes a population feel happier?

Would someone please research the statistics on that and deliver them to Number 10? Thank you, it would make me very happy and most grateful.


  1. I felt I needed to contemplate this very interesting post and question, so have slept on it! A few things occur to me. Firstly, I do agree with your (implied) suggestion that we can be happier simply by counting our blessings. As to a national day, probably giving thanks only one day a year is not enough!
    The second thing that keeps coming back to me is another Abraham Lincoln quote: "Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." It sounds simple, and I think it's true. But the trick is that most of the time we are unaware that we've actually made a choice as to how we respond to events, or what kind of attitude we adopt. (I realise in extreme circumstances we don't necessarily "make a choice" but...)

    So if the government wants to measure happiness (ha ha ha!) they really are measuring how happy people decide to be, or profess to be when surveyed. And that's not to say that people are actually grateful for all that they have. This brings us back to the old cliché of the Poor Little Rich Girl, or conversely happy people who have very little. What does the government think it's going to do with a happyometer anyway? The source of happiness is - thankfully! - beyond measurement, I think.

  2. I tried looking for the poem and gave up in bewilderment because of the Scots language...... maybe there is a translation somewhere. As to the Happiness measure, I think it comes when a country's populace have freedom and equality, in other words there is less of a gap between the haves and the have nots. Scotland has quite a way to go. Btw - I'm usually hovering around an 8 out of 10 so county myself fortunate and I do think counting your blessings is a good pick-up.

  3. Christine...brilliant quote, and one I didn't know, but agree with thoroughly. How to be happy is surely something that humans have always wondered about...I'm impressed you only took one night to ponder about it all.

    Freda...I KNOW ! The 'Drunk Man' is fiendishly difficult...I think I'm very fortunate in having seen it performed by the late Tom Fleming...he did it brilliantly. It's very hard to read straight off the page, and anyone who says they understand it first time is exaggerating.
    Yes, freedom and equality are surely key to a nation's happiness, but I would add hope as one of the most basic ingredients.