Sunday, February 14, 2010

Shiny, Happy People

Following on from last week’s comparison, this week we ask “Who’s the happiest, Americans or Brits?”


You know a country’s setting itself a goal when its Declaration of Rights declares “the pursuit of happiness” as an unalienable right. Looking around however I see that many Americans are doing a fine job in upholding their Declaration.

A 2006 Pew Research Center report had a staggering 84% of Americans claiming to be either “pretty happy” or “very happy”. Heck, there’s even the American Happiness Association, which encourages people to “Take Charge of Your Own Happiness”. They organize conferences, have regional meetings and even sell e-books such as “How to be Positively Happy in Today’s Negative World” – “describing in 37 pages what to do to transform your daily activities into happier ones that you enjoy more.”

I did the same search for the UK and found one similar poll – the Great British Happiness Survey (August 2009), which revealed that about 88% percent of Brits were less happy than when the recession started! There are a few other British surveys which identify the happiest and most miserable places in the UK but the results were so controversial they seem to have just pissed everyone off.

Even the answer to “How are you?” elicits different responses on either side of the Pond. Americans answer with an exuberant “Great” at the very least, while Brits prefer a modest “Oh, can’t complain”, or “Not too bad thanks”. Last year, in a debate with Mike on BBC Radio’s Five Live show, I described living over here as “living with three hundred and fifty million Labrador puppies”. Absolutely exhausting, but who doesn’t love a Labrador puppy? For a Brit however, it can be a bit frustrating when you’re never allowed to have a good moan.

- Just backed the car out of the garage into your neighbor(u)r’s wall? Thank goodness you didn’t have a car full of kids.

- Locked yourself out and no one’s due home for another two hours? Yes, but what a lovely sunny day to do it. It could have been raining.

- Suffering from the world’s worst hangover? You must have had a great time last night.

I know, I know, it’s probably better to have the glass half full, but sometimes I just want to shout “YES, BUT I’M REALLY PISSED OFF!”


I think Toni touched on the heart of the matter: it’s not so much about happiness, it’s a matter of outlook. Americans are very “glass half full” and their optimism is, to be polite, infectious. Other people (not me) might call it nauseating.

It’s as Bill Bryson (another professional expat, a bit funny, like me) pointed out: If you tell an American that a meteor is going to strike the earth and end human life in six weeks time, he’ll say, “Gosh, I’d better sign up for that woodworking class then.” But if you tell a Brit the same thing, he’ll say, “Wouldn’t you just know it; and have you seen the weather forecast for this weekend?”

But the Brits are happy in their misery. “Mustn’t Grumble” is their unofficial national motto. If “Having a Moan” was an Olympic sport, no other country could touch them. And they revel in their gloominess; it defines them. Take it away and they would be really unhappy.

Don’t believe me? Consider this:

1941. Their homeland besieged by a superior enemy. Invasion imminent. Their cities bombed, their food running low, their supplies laughably inadequate and the Americans still dithering across the pond about whether to help them out or not. They were alone, with no hope and no help. And what do they call it? The dark days of the forties? The Terrible Time? No, it’s Their Finest Hour! For once, nothing could get worse, and they were ecstatic.

Then they won the war and everything has been going downhill ever since.

So the Brits are actually very happy people. They’re just happy in a different way.

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  1. Toni - Me too! What's wrong with a little healthy dose of skepticism? Now, I ask you, if we're so damn happy, why is everyone on Lexapro? Or, better yet, maybe that's your answer - we're all in medicated bliss. I think a lot of it is a facade. But try giving a different response to "How are you?" than the obligatory "I'm fine." Complete shock and horror. The real truth is no one wants to be bothered by your problems and have their moment of bliss disturbed. We like living in denial. But hey, "Have a nice day" anyway.

  2. Toni, i think you have been eavesdropping on our husband-wife conversations. My hubby, the Brit, is all dooma nd gloom. Me? The sun is always shining in my world, even if the Lincolnshire skies are grey and gloomy (when aren't they grey and gloomy?!?!?)

  3. Mike, that is so true about the Brits. When things really couldn't get any worse, we were thrilled. Brilliant.

  4. It would be interesting to find out where Prozac makes its biggest sales, relative to population size.

  5. I think it's best summed up by a pessimistic vs an optimistic outlook - but who's more often disappointed? After all, the US Constitution only promises the pursuit of happiness - not the attainment.

    Only a Brit could have written that comment btw!!

  6. I think the response to 'how are you?' sums it up. In UK: Fine, thanks/OK, thanks. In US: "I'm doing great!'.

  7. But never forget that the PURSUIT of happiness can sometimes be the most horrible pursuit of our lives...I'll take trivia pursuit anyday...its just to boring to be happy all the time!
    here from ExPat Mum's blog

  8. Some good comments here. I would also like to add that for a country full of people who like to think of themselves as being so happy, we sure do seem to need a lot more "stuff" in order to achieve it. I think it would be interesting to actually have those same people describe what "happiness" means to them. I wonder how different the responses would be?

  9. Having spent 10 years in Chicago, I loved all these comparisons.
    Thank you for clearing it all up.
    x jo

  10. And this is exactly why I prefer it here and fit better, I am a glass half full person and always have been.

    The Brits are bloody whingers much of the time!

  11. Although there is a world study, there aren't many individual countries that actually measure their happiness levels. Americans seem to do it much more frequently, perhaps because of the Declaration.
    The Pew report found that happiness levels were directly correlated with financial success, although this is correlation and not causation. Interestingly however, in another poll, where a high number of people cited themselves as happy, they also said they were struggling.
    I really think it's a cultural thing whereby Americans almost feel obliged to show the world a smile, and the Brits are obliged not to let anyone see their happiness in case it looks smug.
    One of the best known English poets in recent decades, (and my fave) Philip Larkin, wrote many poems around his central theme of not being too optimistic in case it all leads to disappointment. The upside of that philosophy being that when good things do happen for you, they are all the more appreciated because they were so unexpected. (A level English, BTW).People who were of this pursuasion, he believed, were The Less Deceived. (The title of one of his collections). Indeed one of the poems begins - "The widest prairies have electric fences".
    OK, now how come I can remember a line from a poem I haven't read for about 20 years and nothing that I did last week?

  12. I seem to mostly get asked "Youallright?" in the UK, to which I still have not figured out a proper response. "Yes, I'm just muddling through" is probably most appropriate....

  13. As a Mexican-American
    I can relate to the whole happiness idea. When people ask you how are you today, it's more about being polite, they really don't want to hear about your day. So if you say oh I had a rough day then they are forced to engage in conversation with you. But as a Mexican if you say how are you, this is an invitation to, "tell me about how your mother-in-law dissed you the other day". LOL ..I still haven't figured it out here in Croatia. Still lost in translation.

    A Mexican mommy living in Europe

  14. I have to say that 'Finest Hour' bit was total genius, Mike! you really caught them on that one. :)

    I think its funny that if I am acting happy and optimistic I am called 'so American' as if it is a sad thing. However, I wonder if this is a generation thing (mostly) because its all the 65+ Brits that I know who are best at moaning, and all the next gen down who seem quite content at looking at the glass half full. Or maybe it just takes that many years of practice to moan that much. I dont know.

  15. Thanks, Michelloui. Funny, but no one ever accuses me of being a typical American--must be due to having adopted the "having a moan" attitude of the locals ;)

  16. Interesting.
    I actually have found the opposite. I think my American friends tend to be less happy - or perhaps they're always striving for something more which leads to discontent. Here in England, it seems they are more happy "just being." It's enough here to be in a relationship, have a steady job and family.
    Whereas, in America, it feels like it's never good enough. The first question when meeting someone, "So, what do you do?" in America, sums it up for me.

  17. Hmm, well I think the British are generally a miserable lot, and I include myself in that. I'm not very happy in this country - crap weather, interfering nanny state, crap weather, general pessimistic outlook, crap weather, far too much crime, crap weather, too much vandalism and littering, crap weather, rude people in cities, crap weather, up the spout education system, and did I mention the weather?

    Can you tell I've just been on holiday and didn't want to come back?

    But I guess at least it's ok to have a moan here and not have to pretend that everything's fantastic. And we have slightly better telly.

  18. Mrs Baum: Yeah, the weather is crap; it's raining out right now and has just been a generally miserable winter. But try spending a couple of years in Upstate NY and this won't seem so bad. Still, it's nice to be able to moan about it ;)

    And your telly is way better than in the US.

  19. Americans happier? Odd, when you consider that one of their greatest cultural exports was the Blues! :-) [or :-(, if you prefer!]


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