Noise pollution and happiness

Last Tuesday, 17 January, the Times newspaper did not arrive in Geneva. Pity, because you could have read a journalist's 5 steps to happiness (and they don't cost a penny).

The journalist who wrote this is Matthew Syed. After being a top international table tennis player, he has turned into a journalist who mainly writes erudite articles related to sport. However, the article which did not arrive to me as hard copy (the real newspaper) was mentioned in the readers' letters of today, 20 January. The correspondent wrote a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that if, as suggested in the article, "noise pollution is a catastrophe for happiness", then the current Prime Minister is increasing our happiness by refusing to build more airport runways. Of course, that logic is clearly slightly incomplete.

After a web search, having already paid to read The Times in my computer or iPad, I tracked the article down. Matthew started by querying a recent claim that the key to contentment is salary, then doing a lot of background research. He then put down his own 5 free steps to happiness, namely :-

1 Whatever you do, don’t try to be happy

2 A story or an experience?

3 Fast cars are overrated

4 Don’t live under a flight path

5 Would you enter the Matrix?

I will only comment on the 4th suggestion, which is that there are some things to which we never adjust. Besides the obvious pain and depression, there is also loud noise, such as low-flying aircraft. Medical studies have tended to confirm this latter statement, mentioning that not only can it be especially bad for children, but also we can be disturbed by it during our sleep, even if we do not actually wake up.

For those many people that cannot read this article on-line, I put an excerpt below. In that excerpt you will see the mention of a maximum contentment pay of £58,700: I wonder what this would equate to in Swiss Francs (and how many people in Switzerland are way above the threshhold)!


Pretty much the first thing you come across when you read about happiness is the Easterlin Paradox. In 1974, Professor Richard Easterlin, an economist, discovered that rich nations are no happier, on average, than poor ones (once basic needs are met) and that average happiness actually declined between 1960 and 1970 in the United States despite rapid economic growth.

Indeed, recent data – contrary to the evidence of the Institute for Economic Affairs – suggests that not even the super-rich reap additional happiness. According to a study by Princeton University, contentment increases in line with pay until a threshold of £58,700, then levels off.

The problem is that the rat race is in our genes. Our instinct to keep up with the Joneses, and then shove it to them with an S-Class Mercedes, goes deep. The question (posed by everyone from Christ to Sartre) is whether we can put our exhausting pursuit of cash to one side and get stuck into activities such as family life.

We would be happier, if poorer.

4 Don’t live under a flight path

Humans adapt quickly to new situations. We often think that we would enjoy life more if the weather were sunnier or if we had a better golf swing – but we are wrong. After a while, we would get used to the sunshine or Faldo-esque swish and our happiness would depend on something more fundamental.

But there are some nasty things to which we never adjust. Pain and depression are obvious examples. But (less obviously) so is loud noise, such as low-flying aircraft and neighbours who listen to Guns N’ Roses at 100 decibels. Noise pollution is a catastrophe for happiness. In ruins our emotional equilibrium and creates nasty physiological effects, such as elevated cortisone. So if you have a choice between a mansion under the flight path, or a flat off the main drag, take the latter every time. As the Bible says: “In the beginning there was silence ... and it was good.”

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