Archie Bland: When it comes to happiness, we're all fantasists

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The Independent Online

Happiness, I always think, is a bit like eccentricity. If you are moved to declare it at any possible opportunity, the chances are that you don't have it. The man in the stripey tie who says he is mad is about as conventional as they come; the girl with the hollow eyes who says she is totally fine almost certainly isn't fine at all.

This week, curiously, there's a chance to see if the same logic applies to nation states. On the one hand, we have Great Britain, where, according to the results of an ONS survey published yesterday, four out of five of us said we were happy with our lives.

The result prompted a US blogger to marvel at our capacity for joy considering we "live on a dank, vomit-encrusted island where one can barely take a step without needing to dodge the piles of discarded fast food and people stab each other in the head". (The guy's been reading quite a lot of the Daily Mail, admittedly.) On the other hand we have Turkmenistan, where, after President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's crushing re-election, the government-backed daily Neutral Turkmenistan announced that the country had entered a new era called "the happy epoch of the mighty state".

In myth-making language rather reminiscent of North Korea's claims that Kim Jong Il's birth was marked by a new star in the heavens, a poet called Khodzhamukhammet Kakalyyev marked the occasion with a few lines of verse: "In Turkmenistan a new era has begun/All the Earth is lit up by the light dawn/The glory has enveloped the heart with an aura of greatness/And in the mighty state a happy time has started!"

The trouble is, most of the conventional measures don't back that assertion up. Unless things have changed overnight, the Turkmen are poor; are denied freedom of speech; face widespread discrimination; and are ruled by an autocrat. It's hard to believe that these conditions would naturally lead to happiness .

It would be pushing it to say that the Turkmen are unhappy because their rulers claim them to be so filled with joy, or that we are OK for the very reason we tend to moan about things. But we can, at least, see them as symptoms. And just as the Turkmen are on happiness, so the blustering North Koreans are on military might, and the Syrians on democracy. We aren't immune: we might be happy enough, but it's hard to square our national claims to a stiff upper lip with the sentimentality that rears its head whenever someone famous dies.

Countries, it seems, are just as deluded about their characteristics as people are. Next time you hear an American president protesting his nation's love of peace, hang on to your hat.