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Home > Culture and Society

Reasons To Be Doleful

5 May 2006

The shock news of the week, prompting bears to prick up their ears on their way to the Pope, was that Britain is less happy than it used to be. Yes, folks, it's another of those surveys without which there would be 35% less news, and the papers would be forced to fill in the gaps with large-print Sudoku and pictures of Billie Piper. Most of these surveys are transparent attempts to scaremonger and/or to act as infotainment advertising for massive corporations or nifty piggyback marketing for smaller ones. Most are bewilderingly superfluous, veritable skyscrapers of tautology, obnoxiously thrusting the most obvious of points into our tired brains. Some represent self-fulfilling prophecies, proving themselves by inducing a certain reaction in the readers, e.g. '80% of people are shitting themselves about the deadly flesh-eating virus which is guaranteed to kill them in a sadistically slow and painful way (the other 20% are already dead or as good as).' Given the sense of weariness with which we greeted the happiness survey, it seems like more of the same. Oh well. Sigh.

The survey, as reported with tea-break scurrilousness by BBC Online, finds that only 36% of people describe themselves as 'very happy' compared with 52% in 1957. This despite the fact, it's pointed out, that we've got more money - money, contrary to what we're told, may actually bring the *opposite* of happiness, i.e. unhappiness. Shit, here, have some of ours, we've got too much. It's also explained, sensibly, that a documented rise in cases of anxiety and depression may just indicate a greater willingness to seek help. That would make sense - the stoic, hernia-inducing repression of years past is so not cool right now - but as with any of these surveys only the surface is scratched.

Apparently we're the eighth happiest country in the world, with Switzerland, Ireland and the USA bouncing ahead of us. Obviously, the USA is happy because it has a hundred different types of steak rub and the kind of piously clear conscience born of monumental national ignorance (er, no offence, atta boy). Ireland is all about the craic, as anyone who's been to an O'Neill's will testify (they sell booze in them!), and Switzerland has... er, neutrality? Cheese? That'll do it. We on the other hand, totally uniquely in the world, have crippling debt, terrible crime rates, an imploding NHS, a crappy climate, culture that slid from Shakespeare to Shakin' Stevens and never rallied and of course teeth so bad we simply can't bring ourselves to smile. Oh, and a genius for isolation and pessimism.

Of course the western world in 2006 is a steaming hothouse of self-induced woe. The media ensure we never miss an iota of bad news, for a start, and however much money we make, we'll never be able to afford everything we want. And thanks to modern advertising, what we want is *everything*, even if we don't really want it. If we make money we feel a certain emptiness, realise we haven't seen our kids until they leave for university (from which they'll emerge penniless, prospectless and sick at heart); if we don't, we get seethingly bitter about house prices and evil grasping credit card companies. You know for a fact you're not nearly good-looking enough and your life isn't nearly as much fun and sexy as it should be. You shout yourself to sleep at night about paedos getting off lightly, or sit up late in a moral quandary over whether the blame should be shared by society. Basically, if Ian Dury wrote 'Reasons to be Cheerful' now, he'd be hard pressed to get to three.

It's interesting that the year of comparison is 1957. On the face of it, it wasn't so different to any other year - there were highs, there were lows. Joe McCarthy might have died, but Osama bin Laden was born (as was heavily reported at the time). There was a hurricane in Louisiana, a train crash in Lewisham and a plane crash in the Isle of Wight. There were invasions and international gaffes and poverty and gloom. But in the UK at least you can imagine a rather buoyant national mood. The war was well and truly behind us, rationing had been phased out and people were flinging powdered egg in the air like confetti. Women were gaining greater respect, exciting new products were becoming available, wages were rising and life was returning to a new normal. Life was simpler. Life was *cleaner*, our spiritual tubes joyously free of the sludge of junk mail, computer viruses, electronic toys and hyper-awareness of everything. Sure, some people might have floundered and drowned in depression that was explained away as 'normal muss-haired sleepiness', and others may have exploded with shame after having a wank, but overall, all the evidence (and trust us, we've gathered all of it just this week) suggests that 50s folk had good reason to have bigger smiles. The bastards.

In a masochistic attempt to gauge just how close to breakdown we are, we did Professor Ed Diener's special 'happiness test' here.

The analysis flashed briefly that we are 'Slightly happy - You have an average score. You are...' before the page reloaded, wiping our test score clean. We tried again and once more were defeated by some BBC IT primate's shoddy programming. This depressed us utterly and rendered the score meaningless. Meaningless! What does that remind you of? Everything!

There followed a lot of stuff about how to be more happy, but we couldn't muster the motivation, frankly. And we had to use the time to weigh ourselves, watch some soul-sapping shite on telly we couldn't tear our eyes from, and concentrate on our lives slipping away.

Chin up!

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