Belfast Telegraph

Why are we so happy here? It's because of the simple things ...

By Gail Walker

No one should be surprised at the latest Office of National Statistics survey showing Northern Ireland to be the happiest in the UK.

Of course, the professional moaners of BT7 and 9 will be, because it pokes a hole in their boat that we're a strange backward little place where lives are crushed under the weight of such 'bad' things as traditional values, a strong sense of religion, community and a belief that individual happiness isn't the be all and end all. You know, the things that make us bigoted, intolerant and an embarrassment.

The poll gives no inkling as to why we narrowly pipped Scotland (not surprisingly a region that most closely resembles life on this little slice of paradise).

But it seems obvious - as shown in survey after survey - that those with a strong religious belief are happier than their agnostic or atheistic cousins.

Even if many of us prefer to spend Sunday mornings in bed rather than at a place of worship, our lives are still framed by the rituals of the church and community where people come together.

Baptism, communion, confirmation, marriage and death - in Northern Ireland, these remain major milestones recognised not just by family but by the community as a whole.

Here, for better or for worse, there is such a thing as society.

In our towns, lives are being lived - MTV generation or no - not that much differently from 50 years ago: church groups, Women's Institute, Rotary, St Vincent de Paul, gardening clubs, Soroptimists, Lions, pigeon lofts, WeightWatchers, Unislim, and, yes, Orange Lodges and Young Farmers' Clubs.

A bit like Cheers, small-time life in Northern Ireland means we all have a place where everybody knows your name - even if it's through six degrees of separation: "You know Annie's neighbour's niece who married thon fella from up the road, Big Charlie's son ... "

Sometimes that can be frustrating and claustrophic but I suspect most of us find it kind of nice. Not for us - even in the drear of Belfast - the anonymous atomised lives of Big City UK.

Here, strangers nod acquaintance or say hello. Maybe it's a more pleasant legacy of the Troubles when many made the extra effort to extend the hand of friendship, especially to 'the other side'. Perhaps growing up then taught us, too, that happiness can be a straightforward thing, like loved ones coming home safe.

And not for us either a society where we have to be confronted with sickening inequalities of income and lifestyle.

As numerous surveys have shown, the more equal the society, the happier the people. Yes, we have major social problems but we don't have ostentatious displays of wealth either. We don't have millionaire city workers paying less tax than their cleaners. (As the vast majority of us are, directly or indirectly, working for the Government, we all have a pretty good idea who earns what).

Unlike London or Dublin we don't leave all the nasty jobs to an influx of immigrant workers. In small-town Ulster, there may be a leafy avenue or two, but rich, poor and the vast middle live cheek-by-jowl in our public spaces.

It may not be a socialist paradise but it's not a dog-eat-dog society, either. Indeed, our (in)famous love of 'banter' and craic is just a way of cutting through the social barriers.

To outside ears we may sound rude and aggressive, but there is something bracingly egalitarian in the idea that everyone's fair game for a few drolleries at their expense. Ach, catch yerself on.

Take that and the fact that, no matter where you are here, you're no more than half an hour from heart-stoppingly beautiful scenery, and many of us have the basics of a happy life. That all may be a rather rosy view of life in Northern Ireland but maybe it's time to stand up to the naysayers and gloom merchants. We are not a wee paradise but, like, you know mate, it ain't that Craigavad ...

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