It is fair to say that not all Conservative politicians are known for doling out sensitive compassion. It is hard to imagine receiving a comforting back rub from Lady Thatcher or an encouraging man-hug from Norman Tebbit. Which is why last month, when David Cameron tilted his metaphorical policy head sympathetically to the side and asked sincerely, "Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?", the nation rightly showed a degree of scepticism.
Cameron's interest in our wellbeing didn't stop there. He also wanted to know whether we were cheerful or anxious and whether we do things in life that we feel are worthwhile. Even though a dark cloud of economic gloom shadows the nation, he took it upon himself to discover just how happy we all are by launching the UK's first national happiness survey.
To measure our happiness levels, a new set of specially formulated questions were added to the Integrated Household Survey, a rolling review compiled by the Office of National Statistics. These questions were devised by happiness experts and the answers are now being used to construct a national happiness index, which will be published next year. In July, an interim report will be published that will detail how successful the survey and debate has been, as well as giving an indication of the national mood. Some critics gleefully predict the project will give disaffected citizens a stick to beat the Government with; others call the scheme "voodoo sociology". The general consensus among policy wonks, however, is that an accurate, detailed happiness index could prove invaluable... if only happiness were easy to define.
The problem is that happiness means different things to different people at different times. To some, happiness is a five-bedroomed house and a German SUV in the garage. To others, it is a sunny day and an ice-cream in the park. According to Ken Dodd it is the greatest gift we possess, while some smokers believe happiness is a cigar called Hamlet. The 19th-century economist, William Jevons, put it succinctly when he said: "Every mind is inscrutable to every other mind and no common denominator of feelings seems possible".
Luckily for the Government, however, social sciences, psychology and economics have evolved since Jevons's day and modern-day happiness studies use questions that measure feelings on a sliding scale of contentedness. Statisticians can use answers to these questions to track the causes of happiness and predict where and under what circumstances it is most likely to occur. Earlier this year in the US, for example, the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index – the largest database of well-being in the world – was able to identify Alvin Wong, a 65-year-old, married, Chinese-American, Kosher-observing Jew who lives in Hawaii, as the happiest man in America.
So what makes us happy? Is financial stability and 2.4 children the only recipe for bliss? Or are there other psychological factors that enhance our sense of well-being? We tracked down five families in Britain that have more reason than most to believe they're the nation's happiest.
John Willmott, 57
John is a property developer and consultant who runs his own company. He lives in Bedfordshire with his wife Rafia, aged 38, and their children Cyrus, 14, Emile, 11, and Eliane, 7.
"I would describe us as a comfortable middle-class family. We live in a nice thatched period house in the Home Counties and we are happy. I would define happiness as not being worried about things, it is not about education or status.
Money can help issues go away that make you unhappy but it definitely does not make you happy in itself. It can give you a better meal or a better holiday but people think if you are rich you are happy and that is not true. Happiness is also about how you deal with other people and how you help them. Society is all about taking; people get so caught up in the rat race that they forget to look at the spiritual side of life.
In July 2009, we took a year out as a family and travelled to 26 countries. We did it because we wanted to break our children out of the wealthy middle-class bubble they are growing up in and show them how other people live. Everyone in England takes things for granted, such as easily-available drinkable water. Vast areas of the world do not have that.
Our children go to private schools and have a good life so we wanted to live with people who live without these advantages, to make them appreciate what they have got and realise how lucky they are. We went to live with remote tribes to get close to the people and stayed off the tourist beat. We lived with Mongolian cattle herders and a remote tribe in the Papuan rainforest.
We were happy and close before but now we are even happier and closer. The children have gained in confidence in their daily lives and in dealing with people and situations. They know how to cope better with whatever comes at them. We are more harmonious – everyone wants to do everything together, we are happy to spend time as a family. Since we've been back everyone loves this country and appreciates what a fine country it is."
Suzanne Viscariello, 40
Suzanne lives in Chelmsford, Britain's happiest town. She runs a restaurant there with her husband Antonio, aged 45, and daughter Ginevra, 11.
"I am Chelmsford born and bred. We have had our business, La Vista, in the town for four years and I am very happy.
Happiness is about enjoying family life and having outside interests as well. It is not the best time to run a business in this country. When times were good it was fantastic, we would go away on holiday three times a year, but now because things are difficult we don't.
It is a struggle, but it doesn't make me unhappy because I have other things in my life. Happiness doesn't have to be about money, but money does help. I wouldn't say we are rich, most of our money is tied up in the business. If I was offered £1 million, of course I would take it, because it would make some worries go away, but it wouldn't guarantee happiness.
I'm not sure I agree that Chelmsford is the happiest place in the UK – you also get some miserable people here as well. But it is a commuter town so you get the flexibility of living near London and there are some lovely rural villages dotted nearby.
I enjoy day-to-day life. I have flexibility, I have a loving daughter and husband who make me happy, and I have family nearby. The only thing I don't like is that I work in an office on my own. It can get boring. It can be isolating.
Outside of work, I coach gymnastics voluntarily and I love it. It is something away from the business. It makes me feel that I am worth something. I do it three evenings a week and during the day on Saturday.
If I am unhappy I will walk the dogs and listen to music, phone my friends and have contact with other people. Being out of the recession would make me happy – but that is beyond my control.
Ultimately, happiness has to come from inside; you have to be happy with who you are and what you are doing."
Kerry Leigh, 35
Kerry lives in Stockport with her children, Rita, 2, and Constance, 5.
"Happiness is that really positive feeling you experience when you are at one with the world. I work for a company called Laughology in Liverpool which runs courses for the public and private sector teaching people how to use humour to improve various aspects of their life. I also do stand-up comedy. When you make people laugh it has a reciprocal effect, so I am always happy when I work. I might not feel happy before I start but one of the fundamentals behind the Laughology theory is the idea of consciously using positive body language to make yourself happier. It works. You can condition yourself to be positive and happy. I use some of the methods at home with the children to snap us out of a grump. Sometimes it is just silly things like pulling funny faces, but it works.
I am very optimistic and I see the best in people. Happiness doesn't come from material things. For me it comes down to having good people in my life, having fun and making sure my children are happy.
My priorities are simple; to give and receive love, to get enough sleep, to work and to play. I've had ups and downs, I was depressed after my first child was born and have recently parted from my children's father, but I have always had a positive outlook and I do not have complex needs. If I am ever down, good food, exercise or hanging out with the children cheers me up.
I think happiness is very much about what you surround yourself with and how you choose to react to it. Some people just enjoy moaning about things. I try not to read the papers too much so I don't get caught up in that general malaise. I have a roof over my head, I have my health and my children are healthy, so I am happy."
Gary Greenberg, 57
Fund manager Gary lives in London with his wife Patricia, 51. They have two children, Jason, 19, and Katie, 16. Gary practices the Buddhist techniques of meditation and mindfulness.
"For many years, if I asked myself, 'Am I happy?', the answer would be no. I work in the financial industry and started a company just as the financial crisis began. Everything seemed to be going wrong and my family felt it too. I had been practising mindfulness for a number of years and I used it to bring an acceptance and awareness to what was happening. I found myself able to achieve a state of equanimity which I needed to have in order to deal with what was going on around me. If I ask myself now whether I am happy, the answer is yes. Over time I began to realise that I am healthy, I have a loving family, we are not starving and I slowed down and found I appreciated things that I hadn't noticed before.
As a teenager I was interested in mindfulness and have always been interested in finding a happy state. By the Eighties I had become preoccupied with career and caught up in family and had tired of all the spiritual stuff, but then in the Nineties I read a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and mindfulness teacher, and it struck a chord. When I was 50 I went to a retreat at his practice in France. Now I mediate about 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening.
There comes a point when you accept your life for what it is, you realise you will not have that yacht or whatever else it was you hankered after and when you reach that stage it is liberating. We allow ourselves to be led by a materialistic culture; it's sad because we mistreat each other to get things we don't really want.
As a family, little acts of caring make us happy, as does doing things together. We have good, funny and open dinner conversations and that makes a huge difference to our happiness. For me individually, happiness is sitting quietly in meditation, it is a good conversation with friends. Happiness comes from being with other people and sharing."
Vic Fayers-Hallin, 72
Vic is a retired aerospace engineer and former RAF officer. He lives in Alconbury, Cambridgeshire, with his wife Linda, aged 62. They are naturists.
"Happiness is a state of mind, a sense of well-being. It is not about material things and cash in the bank. Nowadays, people are not happy because they have been led to expect too much. When I was younger we made do with what we had and we went on holiday in tents. People now demand more – they want more material things, they want a new car, a bigger house.
We are very family-orientated and our two grandsons make us happy. As a couple we go caravanning together and we have our health and we can get about and visit naturist clubs. Naturism is freedom. We got into it in the Seventies and now we are members of Cambridge Outdoor Club – we go there to have lunch and sit in the sun. Naturism is a big leveller: when you have no clothes on it doesn't matter whether you are rich or poor, you are all the same.
We are not wealthy by any means, I am just an Average Joe, but we appreciate what we have and we have both worked hard for it. We've had to scrimp and save and the only thing that makes me unhappy is seeing so much money being frittered away on scroungers.
Happiness comes with age; the people I mix with are a similar age and we all have a similar outlook. You know what makes things tick; laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you are on your own.
Naturism enhances our happiness – you take off your clothes and it is like shedding your worries, you are at peace with yourself. I am not built like Adonis and Linda is not built like Aphrodite but no one cares. In naturism you do not judge each other, we are what we are, no one would pass comment about another person. It is like a family, we have some good friends who meet at the naturist club regularly. There is nothing sexual about naturism. There is more innuendo with people with their clothes on. We are just ordinary people, except that for a couple of hours a week we take our clothes off."