Though the British have always been hypochondriacs, earlier bouts of intense self-deprecation—after the war, when bread was rationed and the empire fell apart, or the discontented late 1970s—have coincided with real hardship. By any sane measure, the current grouching doesn't. ... But these inklings [of British good fortune] tend to be submerged in the mud of disgruntlement: the same public is convinced that, in general, the NHS is a wreck. What explains this disconnect?The Economist attributes the grouching and disgruntlement to hypochondria, but I am not so sure. I believe that if the British had achieved exactly the same conditions - in their health service, cultural makeup, educational achievement, and the rest - with more participation in the governance that brought them about, they'd be happier. Participation in defining and creating society's goals is an end in itself. Comparing the different Swiss cantons,
Messrs Frey and Stutzer [found] that a one-point increase in this democracy index, after stripping out the effects of the other variables, increases the share of people who say they are very happy by 2.7 percentage points. What this means is that the marginal effect of direct democracy on happiness is nearly half as big as the effect of moving from the lowest monthly income band to the highest Source (subscription, possibly).
In Britain government is extremely centralised (see here and here, for instance) - at least in absolute terms - and has become more so since the early 1980s. And Britain itself has pooled sovereignty with the European Union. A memorable example occurred in 1996 when, despite its best instincts and against overwhelming economic and humanitarian logic, European Union foreign ministers, against British protests and pleas from Nelson Mandela's South Africa refused to allow free-trade negotiations between the EU and South Africa to begin, because that would have upset French farmers. Is it any wonder that Britons feel disenfranchised, and that this takes the form of unhappiness despite, what on any objective criteria, are enviable living conditions? It's not enough to give people the things you think they want. It's as important to let them make their own decisions. One way of allowing that to happen would be to formulate social goals in terms outcomes that are meaningful to real people, rather than have decisions made by remote government and big business in a mutual back-scratching exercise, as at present. (More about Professor Frey and links to his interesting work can be found here.)