Rory Sutherland

The social tyranny of singing ‘Happy Birthday’

The social tyranny of singing ‘Happy Birthday’
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Among the horrors, some aspects of lockdown were bizarrely less gruelling than expected; indeed for some people, the experience was mildly positive. It’s time to ask ourselves why.

One possible explanation is ‘jomo’ — the joy of missing out. Much ostensibly voluntary human activity is not really voluntary at all. Like dressing for dinner in the 19th century, many elements of life are performative — things done to signal commitment or driven by social pressure. John Stuart Mill observed that ‘Society can and does execute its own mandates… and practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, enslaving the soul itself’. That’s pretty much how I feel about commuting, singing ‘Happy Birthday’, cheek--kissing and indoor drinks parties.

Other unexpected positives arose because a sudden shock to the system accelerated new uses of technology which network effects and force of habit might otherwise have delayed for decades. Not just video calls, but also live online broadcasts of events such as weddings, funerals, conferences and talks. (I even watched a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah in Vancouver from a moving car. Nothing beats driving through an English town on a summer’s day with Hebrew blaring through the open windows.) Flying to such events is rarely easy or affordable. So the introduction of a third option between ‘go’ and ‘don’t go’ is overdue. It was theoretically possible to do this ten years ago — we just didn’t. I would buy far more theatre tickets if they said: ‘If you can’t be bothered to go to this, you can watch it at home on telly.’

But there’s another, seemingly banal reason why some of us liked lockdown. It was a break with routine. As a species, we crave variety. Yet all models and business practices designed to improve economic efficiency leave our desire for variety out of the equation. In pursuit of a uniform, average optimality, activity is divided into narrowly pre-defined, repetitive tasks and targets with ever-decreasing scope for variation.

This reductionist approach may improve efficiency in theory, but at the hidden cost of removing any autonomy or initiative from our lives. Adam Smith died a virgin and lived with his mum, but even he thought that working in a pin factory must be pretty boring. Interestingly, most things that inject welcome variety into the pace of life (Christmas, Lent, Ramadan, the Sabbath) are the products of religion, not rationalism.

Two problems often emerge from this reductionist approach. One is what I call ‘open-plan office syndrome’, where you create an optimally efficient solution designed to work for everyone all the time — with the result that it works for nobody, ever. Work requires a mix of sociability and solitude. The open-plan office provides neither. The drive to focus on a single unvarying target forced GP surgeries to pursue only one target — same-day appointments — disregarding the fact that some people (those with jobs) prefer to book with a little advance notice. Often the best answer is a mixture of one thing and another, but such nuances cut no ice with the technocracy.

We got Sundays wrong for the same reason. Sundays now are like any other day, except that, as a sop to the God-botherers, your Waitrose closes at 4 p.m. (oh, the humanity!). It would have been more interesting to keep one Sunday a month entirely commerce-free, leaving the rest normal. What about car-free days? I hated the idea five years ago; now I’m not sure. Variety is good in and of itself. We live in west Kent but have a small flat in east Kent. As I say to my wife: ‘Life, it’s all about contrasts.’