Bill Bryson on what the British can teach us about happiness

In Notes From A Small Island, author Bill Bryson takes us on a quirky journey through the land that brought us Shakespeare, zebra crossings and places with names like Titsey. In the book, Bryson delights us with hilarious anecdotes about quirky locals along the way.

In a particularly memorable description of the British, Bryson talks about their key to happiness.

One of the charms of the British is that they have so little idea of their own virtues, and nowhere is this more true than with their happiness. You will laugh to hear me say it, but they are the happiest people on earth.

To many, the whole purpose of life and living is to cram as much sensual pleasure into your face as possible. Nowadays, gratification needs to be instant and lavish. But with the British, their seems to be a zen-like attitude in the small pleasures they allow themselves.

And the British are so easy to please. It is the most extraordinary thing. They actually like their pleasures small. That is why, I suppose, so many of their treats — teacakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits, fruit shrewsburys — are so cautiously flavourful. They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake. Offer them something genuinely tempting…and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it’s unwarranted and excessive, as if any pleasure beyond a very modest threshold is vaguely unseemly.’Oh I shouldn’t really,’ they say.

Bryson also touches on how your perception and attitude towards a situation influences your state of mind. In all of their modesty, the British attach positive reactions to “the dearest inadequacies”.

I used to be puzzled by the British attitude to pleasure, and that tireless, dogged optimism of theirs that allowed them to attach an upbeat turn of phrase to the dearest inadequacies — ‘well, it makes a change’, ‘mustn’t grumble’, ‘you could do worse’, ‘it’s not much, but it’s cheap and cheerful’, ‘it was quite nice really’ — but gradually I came round to their way of thinking and my life has never been happier.

Our lesson here is to change the way you view a seemingly negative event in your life, and turn it into something positive.

A key to happiness.

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