The Independent, 26 February 2011

How do you feel about the forthcoming census? Is it a) Hooray. I love genealogy, and my future descendants are going to be pretty interested in this, b) Put on the foil hats, ma – they’re trying to read our minds again, c) It takes how long to fill in? Forty minutes? Then someone had best get me a pencil and two gins, or we’re just not going to get through this, or d) Can’t we just pretend to be out?

Personally, I’m excited, because I love a quiz. Or a test, or an exam. When asked almost any question, my instinct is to snake a hand into the air, and sit jiggling with the excitement of knowing a thing. It is, I might add, precisely this kind of behaviour that has provoked my remaining friends to store me on their phones under the name, ‘Hermione’. And not because of her loveable, Draco-smacking antics of the middle-period books, either. But because I am only ever one bottle of Frizz-Ease away from being both unspeakable and bushy-haired.

So I am delighted to see not one but two new surveys coming up: the census, and the Office of National Statistics Integrated Household Survey (whose first question should be: can you think of a better name for this?). This time, the ONS will be asking questions about our happiness: how satisfied are you with your life nowadays? How happy did you feel yesterday? How anxious did you feel yesterday? And, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile? If you feel you can give an answer between 1 and 10 to those questions, you are a better man than I.

Yesterday, at various times, I can guarantee I felt both devastated and overjoyed. And I don’t think this is a particularly bi-polar attitude, either. At some point yesterday, somebody almost certainly sent me an intensely annoying email, demanding I do something both tedious and time-consuming, which would have pushed me down to about a 3 (livid, but with a flaming core of self-righteousness). But in the evening, I made a pretty nice tortilla, and ate it, and that got me up to maybe an 8. But if I’d made salt caramel instead, that would have got me to a 10, easy. And if someone had rejected my new book proposal, that would have sent me plummeting to about ½.

This is the problem with happiness – it is transitory, and dependent on endless factors outside our control. Unless you have a truly Stoic outlook, it’s difficult to sit through a single news bulletin without losing a little of your joy. And who at the ONS decided that anxiety and happiness were linked? I can’t imagine spending ten seconds without feeling anxious about something. I can’t imagine sleeping through a whole night without an anxiety dream. But that doesn’t make me any less capable of happiness, it just makes me more aware of the need to enjoy it before I get hit by a bus. Or someone I love gets hit by a bus. Or my building gets hit by a bus, and my flat collapses. Or whatever else my subconscious can conjure up in a nanosecond.

If the government really wants to know what makes people feel happier or more anxious, they don’t need to do a survey. They just need empathy. When we see a bank we own announcing it lost over a billion quid in a year, yet simultaneously paying its staff a billion quid in bonuses, that makes us less happy, for the excellent reason that it is demented. And any number of glossy suit-wearers bleating on about retaining the best staff (the ones who can lose a mere billion? They must be awesome, right?) doesn’t change that. And if that goes out in the same half-hour as a report on cuts in our local hospital/library/school, we might feel less happy still. Now come on, ask me another. And make it a difficult one this time.