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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