Terence Blacker: Is Britain really so unhappy?

Now we're only five places above South Korea in the contentment charts

Share
Related Topics

There will be dancing in the streets of Oslo at the breaking news that Norway has topped an important United Nations survey. The dancing will be decorous and well-behaved because, according to the UN's Development Programme, Norwegians now live in the most developed, socially evolved country in the world.

Other nations to have received a pat on the back are Australia, Canada, Ireland, Holland and Sweden. Iceland is ranked third – rather confusingly since it is meant to be bankrupt. The study, based on life expectancy, literacy and gross domestic product per capita, uses information which pre-dates the credit crunch.

Predictably, for Britain never emerges well from international surveys, there is less good news for this country. We have dropped for the first time out of the Development Top 20. In 1990, we were tenth. Two years ago, we had slipped to 16th. Now we are down to 21. Heading fast in the opposite direction are China, Peru, Columbia and Iran.

The most revealing aspect of the UN report has not been the figures but the way they have been reported. Britain, we have been told, is no longer among the most desirable countries in which to live. Once we ranked high in the contentment charts; now we are only five places above South Korea.

Suddenly, it seems, everyone is so obsessed with happiness that new quasi-scientific methods are needed to measure it. Politicians, most recently President Sarkozy, have suggested that some kind of national happiness index would be useful. Children are being taught in schools how to be happy. Something called Happiness Studies has crept on to university curricula.

So why, since Norway is now officially the country most likely to provide contentment, is there unlikely to be a queue outside the Norwegian embassy for migration forms? Perhaps because most thinking grown-ups have realised that the key to living a fulfilled life is complex, and is rarely if ever reflected in surveys of wealth, health and longevity.

Happiness, at least in a developed country, is more than a matter of living comfortably. For most people, the stresses and pressures of living in a country caught up in all sorts of competing and conflicting influences – cultural, religious, economic, social – are not necessarily negative. The awkward Panglossian truth is that these things make us feel more alive, even as we complain about them.

It is perhaps a peculiarly British trait, this need for a dash of unhappiness in our daily lives. Noel Coward caught the mood brilliantly in 1952 in a song called "There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner", a stirring celebration of our national love of misery which includes the lines, "With a scowl and a frown/ We'll keep our peckers down/And prepare for depression and gloom and dread".

Yet the paradox is not as perverse as it may seem. Many of those British expats who have emigrated to a sunny country in search of an easier life end up bored, sitting by a swimming pool reading the grim news from home in their weekly British newspaper and secretly missing it. Much of what makes Britain enraging, and which drags us downwards in the international contentment surveys, is precisely what makes the country interesting and culturally vibrant.

Ordered, civilised countries around the world, with their well-behaved populations and their governments which manage to avoid blundering from one crisis to another, may be top of the class for the UN box-tickers, but there is a different kind of fulfilment among the scruffy under-achievers at the back of the class.

terblacker@aol.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why