Happy days are here again -in fact they've never been away. Raj Persaud explains why the British are contented with their lot
We are less happy now than we were in the past, despite being wealthier. This is the received wisdom, continually repeated in the media over the last few weeks. But where is the evidence to support this fashionable view?
The public opinion journal Eurobarometer conducts annual surveys throughout Europe that investigate the average happiness of the average person. In a summary of these surveys over 24 years, it found that eight out of ten European Community citizens are broadly satisfied with the life they have.
The stability of happiness levels over time is astonishing. Despite the waves of recession and unemployment experienced since the first surveys in 1973, the result in 1994 is exactly the same as it was 20 years ago - 79 per cent are satisfied with their lives. The UK scores have been consistently above the European average, ahead of France, Italy and Germany.
These results do not square with popular theories about happiness. One theory is that contentment results from a comparison we make between our actual lives and how we feel they should be. According to this theory, the British should be far gloomier. The media bombards us with evidence that our world standing as a nation is in decline and shows other nations, including those we defeated in the last war, overtaking us.
There is a striking north-south split across the European Union, with the proportions of those satisfied with their lives above average in Denmark, Benelux countries, the UK, Ireland and Germany. All the countries below average are to the south.
Britain also tends to score very low on neuroticism. In world surveys only the Irish score lower than the British, while Austrians top the poll.
The most popular theory among academic psychologists for these consistent national differences is that climate patterns over thousands of generations have shaped the particular personality of a country. In colder countries there is a huge seasonal variation in the availability of food, you have to harvest in the summer and store for the harsh winter. Survival requires long-term planning and careful regulation of resources. People living in such climates had to learn to do without, even when there was plenty, to survive times of scarcity. So they had to learn to control their impulses and plan ahead. People in warmer countries, with the year-round abundance of nature, never needed to discipline themselves as much as the northerners had to.
The famous stiff upper lip and reserve of the British perhaps originates from this self-control, derived from the need for long-term planning and discipline to survive an uncertain climate. This might make us stoical in the face of adversity (for example, the bulldog spirit during the Blitz) and so protect us from depression when things get tough. The traditional British suspicion of emotional excess could be due to the notion that exhibiting extremes of behaviour suggests an inability to control yourself, a defect that may have weakened survival chances in the past.
It is intriguing to note that high national levels of happiness may predict future economic decline. In 1948 West Germany had one of the unhappiest populations in Europe. Yet West Germany's economic performance was to outstrip the UK's in the next 40 years. Indeed all the countries in Western Europe that were generally unhappier than Britain then went on to outperform us economically. Perhaps one of the dangers of happiness is that it leads to complacency.
Resilience could be a better aspiration. Psychologically this is defined as the ability to withstand pressure without extreme negative emotional reactions. There appears very little correlation between happiness and resilience. While America scores higher on happiness than India, its suicide rate is almost double.
Research has found substantially less happiness in Pacific Rim countries such as Japan and South Korea than in western countries like America and the UK, even after allowing for differences in income. One suggested explanation from the University of Illinois psychology department, which carried out the 1995 research, was that the tremendously high growth rates of the Pacific Rim countries may evoke stress among the constituent populations as a result of having such high expectations for achievement placed on them. It may be that the British opt for happiness rather than the stress of the kind of competitiveness required to maintain a top world ranking in economic performance.
Perhaps the solution to having it all, relative contentment despite the strain of striving lies in resilience, the ability not to let stress get to you. But until psychologists study hardiness as much as they have happiness, how to achieve it will remain controversial.
Raj Persaud is consultant psychiatrist at Maudsley Hospital, London.