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Are the Germans really unhappy?

Recent surveys indicate that Germans are perennially discontented with their lot, despite brushing off the recession and emerging as the economic strongmen of Europe.

When the OECD ‘Better Life’ index asked Germans if they were satisfied with their life, 56 percent said yes, a rating which is three percent lower than the OECD average, despite the fact that Germans earn more, live longer and work significantly fewer hours per week than nearly all the other countries in the OECD.

It’s a finding echoed by the World Values Survey (WVS), which reports that only four out of the 26 countries it surveyed show downward happiness trends: Austria, Belgium, the UK and… Germany.

Whether you can read much into such surveys is debatable. The OECD study, for example, disagrees with the WVS in that it has Austria, Belgium and the UK all registering greater satisfaction than the average, but Germany does seem to be the Eeyore in the pack, registering low happiness ratings in both studies.

There are other indicators of dissatisfaction, too. Seemingly wilful and anarchistic arson attacks on cars are still commonplace both in Berlin and Hamburg, and where these used to be primarily aimed at big gas-guzzling luxury models, they now seem to be increasingly indiscriminate.  Some 350 have gone up in flames in Hamburg, and 400 in Berlin, so far this year.

But the news is not all bad for the German psyche. The just-published Glücksatlas Deutschland 2011, a study commissioned by Deutsche Post, concluded that, having gone through a big dip during the last half dozen years, the life-satisfaction of the man in the street is back up to 2001 levels. Twenty-and thirty-somethings are the happiest, and amongst the regions the people of Hamburg (location of all that car-burning) come out tops, with Thuringians at the bottom of the league, and Berliners bumping along the bottom down there with them.

Whether such studies are really useful or indeed accurate are a matter for debate – it could merely be that the Germans are more direct and honest in their answers than in other countries – but some lessons can be learned, particularly about regional differences. Perhaps the best news to emerge from the Glücksatlas is that there is no longer a big happiness inequality between the former east and the rest of the country, a gap which was always a cause for concern.

Overall, I might venture to suggest, being dissatisfied could in fact turn out to be an economic advantage, as it becomes an onward spur to bigger and better things. You don’t get to be smarter, richer, more powerful than everyone else by sitting back contentedly in the sun.

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