Is Britain really so unhappy?

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.