A successful life? Who gets to decide?


I was listening to the radio the other day, you know one of those improving wordy programmes where you risk learning something if you listen too closely. Well, I must have been listening quite closely but what I learnt was quite perplexing.


Radio programmes can be so illuminating

There were scientists of various backgrounds talking about how the UK is a leader in the field of research where large groups of people are followed from birth to, in one case, their 70th year. These so-called ‘cohort’ studies are apparently very important for many reasons, but primarily it’s a way of monitoring social mobility and issues surrounding health and the lack thereof.

I like the word ‘cohort’, my son’s primary school headmaster used to use it a lot when referring to my son’s year. I’m not sure why he couldn’t just say ‘year 6’ or whatever, but I suppose it sounds more impressive and there is the chance that the person you are talking to will have no idea what you are talking about, which in turn makes you look truly clever. Or maybe not, because after all the whole purpose of communication is to express your ideas clearly. Or maybe that’s just me.

I looked up the definition of ‘cohort’ and was delighted to see that the first definition probably did not reflect what the headmaster was trying to convey:

‘Cohort – noun – an ancient Roman military unit, comprising six centuries, equal to one tenth of a legion

Year 6 could be a bit challenging but I didn’t think a Roman legion or even part of one would come to mind when you saw them playing British Bull Dog in the playground.

I think he had the more contemporary definition in mind;

‘A group of people with a shared characteristic, usually age.’

So not a very exciting word really.

Anyway, I digress, which isn’t fulfilling my remit of clear communication at all. So it wasn’t the use of the word ‘cohort’ that made my ears prick up but rather the conclusions that these scientists had come to based on following these groups for decades. One of the things that they had found was that if you were born into a deprived situation it was likely that you would do less well in life than one of your cohort born into a more comfortable environment. Now you may not think that this is all that surprising. I didn’t really think it was all that surprising either. But it did make me stop and think about the criteria that were being used to judge the success, or lack thereof, of the members of the cohort. See how I keep slipping that word in? The headmaster would be proud of me.

Presumably,  the people who were making value judgements about how successful another’s life had been were making their decisions based on their own experience of life. I think it is probably safe to say that as they were presented as scientists they will have successfully navigated the exam taking culture of mainstream schooling and gone on to University. They now have careers rather than jobs – who gets to define that?

Well apparently the definition of  ‘a career’ is;

an occupation or a profession that usually involves special training or formal education.

Whereas ‘a job’

‘is the work that a person does regularly in order to earn money.’

But I assume a job doesn’t necessarily need formal education.

I was also surprised that owning one’s own house was a criterion that was being used to judge how successfully members of the cohort, (okay, enough now) had navigated their lives.

Are we really saying how much you earn and whether you own the home you live in is a good guide to how successful your life is? 


How happy does playing music make you?

What about happiness? What about fulfilling relationships? What about how creative you are, how much you contribute practically to your locality? How much you can grow on your allotment. Indeed the fact that you know how to grow things on your allotment. How many musical instruments you can play? Why are these things not considered suitable criteria for how successful your life is? How about how many times a week you get to sit and eat dinner with your family? How many of your kid’s school plays you’ve managed to get to over the years? How often you get to spend time with dear friends that make you laugh? How positively what you do impacts others? Gosh, my head is awash with so many things that might make for a successful life. How much you earn, how big your house is, and who owns it, doesn’t really come into it.


Growing these would make me very happy

Maybe it’s time that we stopped being ‘followed’ and ‘researched’ by people who have taken one route in their lives and therefore judge everyone else by the standard of how closely we adhere to the same route. Who made them the arbiters of success? Well, of course, they made themselves the arbiters, they and other people like them.

So I’d like to be part of a cohort that doesn’t need judging by others and just gets on with experiencing as many diverse aspects of life as possible in the direction of the greatest joy for all.

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