The <i>IoS</i> Happy List 2011

Don't get bogged down in all the numbing materialism of those other lists. David Randall introduces our annual tonic for the soul, the people who, you think, do most to make Britain a better place

Click here for full happy 2011 list

Today, we publish the fourth annual Independent on Sunday Happy List, naming 100 outstanding examples of people who volunteer, care, educate, or do something special to make Britain a more contented, better-adjusted, and supportive place. Our selection includes a pair of foster parents who have given homes to more than 60 children, the lifeboat coxswain who has saved 337 lives, the mother of a murder victim who tours jails to talk to violent prisoners, the country's most eccentric cancer research fund-raiser, and our most astonishing doctor.

The Happy List began as an antidote to The Sunday Times Rich List – that annual worshipping at the shrine of wealth, bonuses, large inheritances, and sharp elbows. We wanted to celebrate a different set of values: the people who put good work ahead of fat profit. Our list honours those who give back, rather than take; those who help others or do something worthwhile without thought of enriching themselves, and, in many cases, at considerable personal cost.

The result, this year, is 100 Britons ranging from the man who has run an animal rescue centre for 35 years and the founder of a project which has helped disaster victims in 65 countries, to an ex-dealer in drugs who is now a youth mentor. There are charity founders, wildlife conservationists, community stalwarts, and a mother who lost three of her own babies and who has since helped thousands of other women avoid the same fate.

This year, we have made a special effort to include those who add to our cultural and scientific life, and so here are classical musicians, a comedian or two, and the country's top apostle for space exploration. And there are those who have made our heritage – natural or historical – better known through outstanding television documentaries. Hence the appearance of the best kind of public educator, people such as Tony Robinson and Michael Wood.

Britain, despite all you might read in the more churlish, materialist wing of the press, is a country full of volunteers, carers, community activists, fund-raisers, and those whose first instinct, when confronted with a need, is to roll up their sleeves and get involved – the real Big Society, if you like. Many of the people listed here do their good work in a town, village, or limited area. Their remarkable efforts are included not just because they are intrinsically worth it, but because they stand as representatives of the hundreds of thousands who do similar work across the country.

Our list, regarded as an upstart enterprise when it began, has taken on a life of its own. This year we were nearly overwhelmed with nominations from charities, campaign groups, and regional organisations. Space does not permit them all to be thanked here by name, but our gratitude remains undimmed.