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Leading article: Genuinely happy to help

Welcome to our annual celebration of selflessness and the service of others, The Happy List. This started as a light-hearted riposte to the league table of prurience and greed of a rival newspaper's Rich List, and is now in its fifth successful year. In the years since, things have changed. In a period of national retrenchment unprecedented in peace time, it might seem harder to be positive.

Yet we report today that the people of Britain are more hopeful, and more likely to feel that they have been "born at a fortunate time", than since the start of the financial crisis. And we report from Liverpool, one of the hardest-pressed areas of the country, on how the people are taking control of public services in a new surge of civic pride, eclipsing the "self-pity city" days of the 1980s.

This may sound a little like David Cameron's Big Society in action, but in fact it exposes how patronising the Prime Minister's slogan is. Volunteering, charity and self-help have always been important in Britain, but trying to co-opt such impulses for party-political purposes could inhibit them. Fortunately, the people of Liverpool and elsewhere are unlikely to be diverted by phrase-making in Westminster from working together to improve their lives.

Not least because the idea of the Big Society is self-contradictory. Mr Cameron reached for it as a rhetorical device to counter what he saw as the Labour Party's tendency to Big Government, and yet he – and the British people – know that Government has a role to play in encouraging altruism. Our ComRes opinion poll today finds that, by a three-to-one margin, people agree that "the Government ought to try to increase happiness, or general well being, rather than just national income and wealth".

But what should ministers do? They could take seriously the work of Professor Richard Layard and others, who have thought about how public policy can help make people happy, and how government can get out of the way of people pursuing their own happiness. This goes to a dilemma at the heart of politics, as expressed by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the founders of the Fabian Society, when they tried to set out the programme of the early Labour Party a century ago and were reduced to calling for a national "change of heart".

The modern version of this would be a call for a change of national "culture". Which is something for which all of us, journalists and politicians included, have a responsibility. Newspapers have long been criticised for accentuating the negative. Some seem to revel in portraying Britain as a crime-ridden hell-hole in which no one is to be trusted and the motives of strangers are suspect. The present austerity seems to have intensified that tendency. Some of this cynicism about politicians, wealth creators and life in general may be justified, but there is a danger in taking it too far. And there is a danger in assuming that the attitude of some parts of the media is a reflection of what most people actually think.

Outside the media bubble, people do amazing things and deserve to be celebrated. Our Happy List honours the unsung citizens who give back, rather than take, who help others without thought of enriching themselves, or, in many cases, at considerable personal cost. We think that these people are representative of the country, and that they are newsworthy too. We think that they are an example to us all, and should inspire us all to focus more on how to increase the sum of national happiness. So, naturally, worry, in moderation. But also, be happy.