Monday, January 16, 2006


By Ana Samways

Marcus Pickens writes: "We have had roadworks outside our retail shop on Wellesley St for a couple of weeks now. It seems to be progressing slowly, and here is a possible reason why. This boatie had a flat tyre and no jack and the chaps here helped out by using their digger to lift the boat trailer and get the tyre changed. They looked like a formula one pit crew as there were so many helpers in fluorescent vests willing to get involved."

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Literacy is not declining in New Zealand. According to one reader, it's always been pretty ordinary. "At a quiz night in the local RSC the genial, fiftyish quiz master had some trouble reading the questions (let alone understanding them). His best effort came when he described the barbarian Atilla the Hun as "The Scrooge of God". My attempt at Scrooge McDuck was not considered to be the right answer. Despair not about our youth.

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Not quite sure about the lyrics to one of your favourite songs? Planning to look them up on the internet? Better look fast. The US Music Publishers Association says it is going to pursue legal action against websites that post lyrics and song scores. The MPA, which represents sheet music publishers, says it isn't just looking to shut the sites down or even reap monetary rewards. MPA president Lauren Keiser says that throwing some people in jail would make their campaign even more effective. (Source:

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The Kiss Coffeehouse will open this summer in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The band's website promises the coffeehouse will feature several blends of Kiss coffee and something it calls "The Kiss Frozen Rockuccino". The building itself looks like a space-age diner flanked by two gigantic platform boots.

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An Ohio judge sentenced a man convicted of threatening and using racial slurs towards a black cab driver, not to 30 days in jail but to six weeks of Afro-American church services. "It seems readily apparent to me that you don't like black people," Judge William Mallory Jnr said. "That's okay with me. But you have to understand that you are at the whim and authority of a black judge ... If you want to get out of jail, you're going to have to raise your black consciousness," the judge said.

Mirko Bagaric: Chasing cash doesn't make sense

How hard should I strive to make that next buck? That's the question that will be taxing many of our minds as we trudge off to work, dispirited by the knowledge that it may be another year before we can again let our hair down, unclutter our minds and rest our bodies.

But there is potentially some cheer just around the corner. Social and brain scientists have been able to ascertain with a high degree of certainty the things that make us happy and where careers and the pursuit of wealth sits in the mix.

These aren't guesses based on observations about the sort of things that make us tick. Using brain imaging censors the scientists have weeded out the grumps from the happy people.

Richard Davidson, of the University of Wisconsin, has identified an index for the brain's set point for moods.

The images show that when we are distressed, the most active parts of the brain are the amygdala and the right prefrontal cortex. When we are in positive moods, those brain areas are quiet and there is increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex.

A person's mood range can be ascertained by noting the baseline level of activity in right and left prefrontal areas. The further the ratio tilts to the left, the happier they are.

It emerges that the Buddhist monks who for centuries have been preaching the art of happiness have actually got it down pat. When their brains were imaged, their baseline points were the most to the left.

But if you're not impressed enough to throw in your job and get a one-way to ticket to Tibet, read on. Wide-ranging studies of thousands of people across many countries have allowed well-being experts to develop a roadmap to happiness.

On that map, the pursuit of wealth, rather than being a main arterial connector, at best merits the occasional detour. If you stay on the detour too long, you will quickly find yourself on the road to nowhere, at least in terms of your well-being.

There is only a modest connection between wealth and happiness. The rich don't have a monopoly on happiness. In fact, people who focus on the accumulation of wealth are more likely to be unhappy.

This is supported by a study, Why Australians Will Never Be Prosperous, released in July 2005, which shows that 21 per cent of surveyed individuals in the lowest income group, A$0 to A$25,000 ($0 to $27,000) indicated that they were totally satisfied with life whereas only 13 per cent of individuals in the highest income group (A$100,001+) said they were totally satisfied.

So what is the point of diminishing returns beyond which more money no longer meaningfully contributes to our lives?

In absolute terms, the answer is the level of income that is necessary to buy the essentials for living food, shelter, health care and education.

There is also a relative aspect to the equation as many of us tend to compare ourselves with others and then compete with them. This explains why happiness increases when a person escapes poverty but societies do not become happier as they move from relative poverty to affluence.

From this it emerges that money ceases to have a significant effect on our sense of well-being once we derive an average level of income.

It is not surprising that in a recent Time magazine poll, money ranked a lowly fourteenth to the question - What are your major sources of happiness?

The poll found happiness tended to increase as income rose to US$50,000 ($71,700) a year (the mean annual income in the US is around US$43,000). After that, money didn't have a significant effect on happiness.

So if money doesn't do the trick, what should we be aspiring towards? In a nutshell, the things that are conducive to happiness are fit and healthy bodies, realistic goals, self-esteem, optimism, an outgoing personality, a sense of control, close relationships, challenging work and active leisure, punctuated by adequate rest and a faith that entails communal support, purpose and acceptance.

Putting the theory to one side, this means that to retain your holiday smile the best thing is to get a job performing something that you would do even if you weren't getting paid.

But if your backhand or putting skills aren't good enough to get you even over the poverty line, plan B is to stop comparing your wealth with that of your colleagues and once you've reached the average level of income (about $40,000) peg back the work hours (unless you are genuinely passionate about what you do).

At the same time, ditch the plan to buy the new car and plasma TV and disconnect the mobile phone. Use the spare time to get regular medical checks, overdose on time with family and friends, get a hobby and a dog.

You may think you can beat the odds as you further rev up the career aspirations and work more and more hours to pay off the mortgage and car and plasma TV debt, but your chances are slim.

The methodology in the research was the same as that used to obtain biological information about people. Your chances of beating the happiness roadmap are on a par to eating burgers for a decade and coming up clean on your next cholesterol check.

If you're still unconvinced and aren't going to make any lifestyle changes there's only one thing to do. Pretend you're happy and that you really enjoy your job. Smile even if it hurts - the studies show that thinking you're happy can help to bring on the real thing.

* Professor Mirko Bagaric is the head of the Deakin Law School, Victoria, and author of How to Live: Being Happy and Dealing with Moral Dilemmas.