Beyond all those earnest lifestyle articles about down-sizing and the simple life, between the lines of those conference speeches about “broken Britain”, lies one big, simple question: how best can we be happy?
Never before has our world been as obsessed by the idea of finding happiness as it is today. Entire faculties have been established to analyse it as a new and important social science. Forget economics, we are told; there should be a Gross National Happiness index to reveal how each country is doing in the race for contentment.
Here is a small contribution to this great debate. Those wishing to understand happiness better merely have to cross the Channel. There they should look beyond the French, who are as complicated as any other nation and whose position in a recent international happiness poll conducted by Gallup was only one above this country’s, and consider those Britons who are contemplating a new life in France.
To those of us left behind, the great drift south of restless Britons – mostly middle-class, mostly middle-aged – may look suspiciously like running away from life’s interesting pressures to sink into a state of sybaritic mental stagnation, but it is certainly growing in popularity. In 2006, the emigration figure was about 400,000; it will probably pass the half-million mark for this year.
Spending time recently in one of those areas of France where the British are landing like starlings coming to roost, I sensed that this trend could not entirely be explained by the usual, well-worn clichés that have been deployed in recent times: England has become too crowded, noisy, rude and violent; a few hundred miles south, the sun shines more warmly; the food and the wine are better; the company more agreeable.
Something else is going on to provide many of those who settle in France with at least the illusion of happiness. Those who have settled there tend to take a rosy view of their adopted country. “The French have got the right idea about this,” they say, before recounting a new area of superiority over poor old Britain – transport, family life, the health system. Ignoring France’s social and political problems, they are as blindly in favour of all things French as previous generations were prejudiced in the opposite direction.
Expatriates feel at home there – more at home than they had felt in their own homeland – and the cause is not merely an improved quality of life, real or imagined. They are responding to a sense of community which the French have mysteriously managed to retain, at least in the parts of the countryside where foreigners tend to congregate. It is in the way they greet each other in the street or in the shops, in the attitude towards children and across generations generally.
That sense of muddling along together may be superficial and indeed has been seen to dissipate quickly when expatriates in France have tried to break into an enclosed profession like farming. But when political parties in Britain discuss how to make this country a happier place, it is worth remembering that such things start small – in local communities, villages and towns – but have a powerful effect. At a time when great institutions are crumbling, it is acts of everyday decency and kindness which help restore a nation’s sense of itself.