Christina Patterson: Britons long for sunshine (but know it will rain)

This is a country whose national treat – national panacea, in fact – is a nice cup of tea
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The Independent Online

Ask almost anyone how they are and they'll generally reply "good". Good? Did I ask them where they placed themselves on an exacting moral spectrum? Did I ask them how they were feeling? Christ, if we got into that we'd be here all day.

It's an American import, of course. In the good old days of English repression, the days before we all went bananas over the death of a pretty, bulimic Sloane we'd never met, or launched witch-hunts on middle-class doctors on holiday in Portugal, "How are you?" or its even more starchy precursor "How do you do?" was just a handy little mechanism for oiling the social wheels. A brisk "Fine, thank you," or, if you insisted on being a little more upbeat, "Very well, thank you" and we could all move on. Polite interest had been expressed and registered and batted away. Clean, efficient and free of nasty (gratuitous emotional) emissions.

For the American writer of a bestselling new book, however, this national shift towards the values of his countrymen isn't nearly enough. In The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner embarks on a whistle-stop tour of "the happiest places in the world" in order to unearth the secret of happiness (and, presumably, of Brysonesque success). After brief trips to acceptably sanguine Switzerland (praised for its toilet and its trains) and India (land of "one-stop shopping"), he moves to the darker end of this rainbow of nations, settling on post-Soviet Moldova and Slough.

The Moldovans, he observes, live under a "cloud of pessimism" and "derive more pleasure from their neighbour's failure than their own success". And the Brits, it seems, are even worse. "The Brits don't merely enjoy their misery," says the accidental anthropologist, "they get off on it." "For the English," he adds, "life is not about happiness but getting by."

Well, give the man a Pulitzer Prize. Insufficient enthusiasm? From the nation for which "mustn't grumble" is a synonym for "fine, thanks" or perhaps even "yo!" The country whose national treat – national panacea, in fact – is a nice cup of tea? The country which produced Thomas Hardy and Philip Larkin and Martin Amis and Morrissey? The country which produced that marvellous manifesto of miserabilism, The Anatomy of Melancholy? Written, incidentally, as a keeping-idle-hands-busy strategy to "avoid melancholy".

The thing is, Mr Whiner, this country, unlike your own, does not have "the pursuit of happiness" enshrined in its constitution. In fact, we don't really have a constitution, though that can only be a matter of time. No doubt Margaret Hodge and Ed Balls and Andy Burnham are even now concocting some ceremony where you have to dress like Morris dancers and shake your bells at a Union Jack while declaring your bliss to be a Briton.

Look, we're making considerable efforts. We're popping pills like they're candy (which, it seems, they pretty much are). We're buying lots of shiny paperbacks telling us How to be Happy. We've even created a "new science" of happiness, just like we've created easier A levels and a lovely new state smorgasbord in which you pick your dentist, doctor, hospital and school.

It's a science developed by an old Etonian Labour peer. Richard Layard's Happiness: Lessons from a New Science was hailed by Mr Balls as "seminal" and by fellow Etonian David Cameron as "a powerful case that public policy should not be oriented towards maximising wealth, but rather towards increasing happiness". A lesson clearly taken to heart by Layard's former boss, whose £4m pick'n'mix of post-prime-ministerial projects was surely selected solely on its ability to generate endorphins at the appropriate rate.

Blair's biographer, Anthony Seldon, is even teaching happiness at his school. Which, by the way, is Wellington College, a public school which currently boasts "the best results since league tables began". Since one of the key findings of this new science is a version of the old Gore Vidal principle that "it is not enough to succeed; others must fail", ie that humans are happier the higher they are in a hierarchy, you'd have thought that there might be others whose need of this kind of brainwashing was slightly greater. But I guess we can only plough our own little furrow, etc.

Luckily, all of this is having very little effect indeed. We are still a nation that longs for sunshine, but knows it will probably rain. We're also – still, just – a nation that believes that wild whoops of ectasy might just be appropriate when Arsenal beat A C Milan but not as a soundtrack to the business of daily life. We're a nation, in short, which believes, like Hardy, that happiness is "but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain". Let's drink a cup of tea to that.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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