When pollsters and statisticians are on the loose, making their comparisons and drawing up their league tables, they seldom bring good news for Great Britain. If the survey is into obesity, teen pregnancy, crime, drunkenness and stress, we are to be found near the top of the charts. If the subject is personal consideration, quality of life and general cheerfulness, we will invariably be down among the dead men, somewhere between Albania and North Korea.
Perhaps they are meaningless, these busy little lists. Who cares if the smug Danes or the cheery New Zealanders are reported by someone with a clipboard to be more content than us? All the same, it niggles. The more researchers tell us that we are a discontented nation, the greater our discontent.
Two recent surveys confirm the now-familiar idea that the British work harder, and are therefore more tense and miserable than other peoples. Under the headline "Overworked Britons struggle to find time to work for themselves", a new survey of 3,000 people suggests that we are now so caught up in the everyday business of our lives – our work, in particular – that we are deprived as never before of what is described as "me-time". In London, 13 per cent of those questioned claimed to work 60 hours a week. Half of all interviewees with jobs claimed to bring work home. Surprisingly to some, Britain's most frenetic city turns out to be Norwich, whose citizens manage on average a paltry 45 minutes for themselves every day.
The result of all this activity is, according to another survey, significant levels of stress. Three-quarters of Britons are kept awake at night by work worries. One in five has job-related dreams. Ten per cent admit to waking in a state of wide-eyed anxiety in the early hours. There is something odd going on here. Those of us who experience the early-morning horrors will know that worries about work tend to be intimately bound up with concern for oneself. Indeed, the whole idea that the overworked British are now tragically deprived of me-time comes as something of a shock.
We live in an age which is so self-absorbed as to make previous generations look virtuous. It has become fashionable to characterise the 1980s as a time of greed and selfishness, but those years also saw a sense of political engagement, an awareness of a wider world.
We kid ourselves that there is greater pressure from our work lives than ever before. Working hours have fallen over the past 15 years. There is no obvious reason why the prediction of 30 years ago that computer technology would soon bring more leisure time should not have come true.
Instead, new technology allowed the world of work to leak corrosively into the fabric of our private lives. Or, rather, jobs have come to represent not just a way of earning a living, but an expression of worth and self. The people one can see every day on commuter trains, their pale faces staring at the small screens of their smartphones, fingers jabbing at tiny keyboards, are not selflessly working for others – boss, spouse, family. They are responding to the frenetic, nerve-jangling messages from their own busy, distracted world. Work, home, relationships are all part of their me-time.
The idea promoted by the survey (which, significantly, was commissioned by Windows Live Hotmail) is that the British are so generous in their work and family lives that they leave no quality time for themselves. It is consistent with the message contained in books and films such as Eat, Pray, Love: if we could only give ourselves the time to indulge our sweet, needy inner selves, the world would be a happier, kinder place.
The opposite, of course, is true. In our fretful, self-centred lives, many of us are more obsessed with our own little world of work and home than ever before. It is not more me-time that is needed, but rather less.