Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland

The social tyranny of singing ‘Happy Birthday’


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.

Adam Smith died a virgin and lived with his mum, but even he thought that working in a pin factory must be boring

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.

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