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4.4.1 Engaging with the content

For example, when I read in paragraph 3 of Layard's article that ‘41 per cent of people in the top quarter of incomes are ‘very happy’’ I asked myself:

  • Why is ‘very happy’ in quotation marks?

  • Is 41 per cent about what I'd expect?

  • What is this telling me?

As soon as I thought about it, I realised that ‘very happy’ could be a response that people had ticked on a questionnaire. Perhaps they had been asked a question such as: ‘Thinking about your life in general, how happy are you? – (1) very unhappy, (2) unhappy, (3) middling, (4) happy, (5) very happy’. I wondered which of these answers I would tick, if asked, and which might be ticked by other people who I know. It then struck me that 41 per cent is quite a high figure for very happy – that's four people in every ten, right up at the top of the scale. This made me wonder how large the proportions were for ‘happy’ or ‘middling’, and whether many people would answer ‘very unhappy’. (In the next paragraph I got more information on this when I read that almost three in ten young women were reported to be depressed.)

Then I noticed the 26 per cent figure for people in the lowest quarter of incomes. I thought to myself, ‘That's a quarter of the least well-off saying they are very happy. That does seem surprising’. Obviously, happiness doesn't directly depend on wealth. I tried to think of the least and most wealthy people I know and how happy they might say they were; this reminded me of all the other things in life that contribute to happiness and sadness. I also thought about how people want to feel that they are happy, and concluded that perhaps the high proportions saying they were very happy weren't so surprising after all.

These thoughts helped me to get a general sense of scale of the figures in paragraph 3. It's not important to remember the actual figures 41 per cent and 26 per cent, I can always look them up again if I need them. The important thing is to get the general picture. I wouldn't pause to ponder over every number, if I felt I was slowing down too much, but these seemed to be significant to the argument.

When I came to the third sentence of paragraph 3, I found myself challenged. ‘The proportions in each group who are very happy’ is quite an abstract idea to hold on to; but then I also had to think about these proportions not changing and about ‘real incomes in each group’ rising. It was too much for me. When I asked myself ‘What is this really saying?’, I couldn't answer. As this was clearly an important part of the argument, I decided to try to write it down in my own words:

  • Huge rise in real incomes for all groups

  • But no change in % very happy in each group

  • So society getting much richer but not happier

This helped me feel that I had grasped the point. But I still found it difficult to hold this idea in mind at the same time as the point about richer people being on average happier than poorer people, so I wrote down:

  • On average richer are happier – yet getting richer hasn't made us happier.

I felt I needed to think more about this to take it in properly. Later, as I read about habituation and keeping up with the Joneses, it all began to make more sense. In fact, I found myself getting very interested in this later discussion about rivalry over incomes in families and organisations. I found myself thinking about rivalry within my own family and in organisations for which I have worked. The more you can make what you are reading ‘real’, by linking it to what you know and care about, the more your mind enters into working with the new ideas you are encountering.

I have tried to illustrate here how reading can trigger questioning and thinking. Reading for study purposes is an argumentative dialogue in your head. No doubt you would ask quite different questions. The specific questions are not important – it's the process of questioning that is.

Key points

Questions are what make reading interesting and challenging. They give a sense of a ‘quest’ to find answers. They help you to engage with what you are reading about.

You need to ask questions of the kind:

  • What is this telling me?

  • What do I think of this? (Am I surprised; How does this relate to me and my life; Does this help to make sense of the world as I know it?)

  • How does this fit in with what I already know?


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