We've never had it so good (at least compared with the neighbours)

From health and wealth to working hours, a study finds life in Britain not so bad after all

Fatter we may be, not to mention more scared of going out at night, but the people of Britain can take solace in the knowledge that we work shorter hours than our counterparts abroad and are among the richest.

A survey of modern life found that people in the UK work an average of 1,646 hours a year, 93 hours less than the average for all 34 countries analysed by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Though it fared badly for obesity, with the worst rates in Europe, Britain came fifth in terms of wealth in the Better Life Index, released yesterday, and has an above average life expectancy of 79.7 years.

As for the rather more subjective measure of happiness, however, the country fell pretty much in the middle. Despite the proportion of Britons saying that they are satisfied with their lives now reading at 68 per cent, 9 per cent above the OECD average, the UK still ranked a rather middling 15th against competitors.

It is this last assessment that will perhaps provoke the most debate, as assessing our level of happiness appears to have become a modern preoccupation.

The results of David Cameron's national well-being project are expected in July, following a consultation by the Office of National Statistics costing £2m, and last month saw the launch of the Action For Happiness campaign by the Young Foundation. Consider also the work of World Database of Happiness in Rotterdam and samples taken daily by polling companies, and it is easy to see why chartered psychologist Mark Millard says the happiness business is booming.

"Thousands of people are phoned up every day to measure this," he said. "There are even people who monitor Twitter and blogs for emotional words and plot how often those are used."

The importance of charities and governments alike in taking note of happiness measurements, according to the director of Action For Happiness, Mark Williamson, is to realise that it is not just economic factors that determine the success of a society.

"These surveys show it is possible for nations to be happier than the UK without requiring us to get richer," he said. "There's too much effort focused on the creation of wealth rather than the improvement of well-being."

The conundrum is that happiness is a tougher factor to improve than some might think.

"We each have a different capacity to be happy – some of us are just born gloomy, miserable buggers," said Mr Millard. "There's a genetic component. Fifty per cent of your happiness is determined by genetics. The quickest way to be happy is make sure you have the right parents."

Nor does having a country full of happy people necessarily make for a better society. "People can be seriously unpleasant and dangerous but be quite happy – psychopaths, for example. On balance it probably does make for a better society if you have a lot of happy people, but you can still have people who are happy and downright nasty."

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