Get a handle on it

What is happiness? Hugh Pearman has an inkling
that it could lie in having just enough, Drax Power
Station and a set of sublimely pleasing door handles

The King of Bhutan, we are told, suggested as long ago as 1972 that his country should record its gross national happiness quotient as well as its gross domestic product.

I don’t know if Bhutan ever implemented this policy, but its monarch was clearly well ahead of the rest of the world. In recent years a whole new science – the Economics of Happiness – has been established, initially in response to research findings that increased prosperity does not lead to greater happiness. Meanwhile, some nations with relatively low economic prosperity seem to breed happy people who have only just enough, rather than more than enough. What does this tell us?

It tells us that creating a sense of well-being means more to people than tax cuts, for instance. The sense that things are under control in a benign way. Designers, then, can help by creating environments where this easeful, confident feeling is possible.

I urge you to read a new book, called Building Happiness, which tackles just such issues. It comes from a think tank within the Royal Institute of British Architects, but don’t let that put you off/ it’s edited by an excellent structural engineer, Jane Wernick. In it you’ll find, for instance, a characteristically sharp cartoon, Ha-Harchitecture from the illustrator of this column, Louis Hellman.

And among the serious essays from economists, professors, social scientists, architects and engineers are brief cameos where various people choose their Happy Place. This is what they asked me to do, so sorry, I’m in it. My Happy Place? Presumably it would be a cop-out to say, ‘At home, with my family, glass of chilled Manzanilla to hand, watching Merlin on the telly.’

So I toggled between my two favourite buildings: the Galilee Chapel at Durham Cathedral, which is gossamer-fine Romanesque and contains the tomb of the Venerable Bede, and Drax Power Station in Yorkshire. Eventually, I plumped for Drax. It helps that I’ve been inside the place, seen the turbine hall, taken a lift to the top of its chimney (taller than Canary Wharf) and gazed out over the Plain of York. It makes me happy because – for all the obvious drawback of its carbon footprint – seeing it, at the junction of the M18 and the M62, shows that the nation is working. You can see where the power is coming from. And it means we’re in Yorkshire, a home of happy holidays to us. But what if I had to choose a Happy Object? No contest here. My house has 16 internal doors, and each one of them is equipped with a pair of Arne Jacobsen lever door handles, in nickel-plated brass, supplied years ago by Jacobsen enthusiast Williams Ironmongery. Jacobsen developed the handle for his SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen in the late 1950s, and later installed it in St Catherine’s College, Oxford. Its organic, double-curved shape exactly fits the hand and the way your fingertips curl round underneath, your thumb falling precisely on the centre spindle.

As they get older, these bits of mini-sculpture just get better. On my desk I even have a spare one which I like to fondle, like a beloved pet. Every time I open or close a door, I’m reminded just how great a simple piece of product design can be. Yes, a door handle can make you happy. All we have to do is apply that thinking to everything else. And our gross national happiness quotient will jump off the scale.



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