Are Australians really the sunburnt slackers we like to think we are? Warwick Sprawson takes to the streets with a stopwatch to find out.

Recently I bumped into a French tourist, André, while I was on holiday in southern NSW. André loved Australia – it was so different to France – not just the plants and animals but the attitude of the people. He thought Australians were gloriously relaxed and contagiously happy. He thought we had much more time than his compatriots for a chat, a joke or to help a stranger. ‘In Paris everything is so fast – go, go, go. There are too many pressures.’ While I swelled with pride on behalf of the national identity, I also felt the tiniest bit fraudulent. It seemed to me, as an inhabitant of a gritty Melbourne suburb, that Australians were not as relaxed as we were often portrayed, and definitely not as laid-back as we used to be. My sense was that 21st century life was making us increasingly rushed and rude. Salespeople were too harried to help customers and customers became tetchy after the slightest delay. The sound of car horns, once rare, was now common. Office workers pummelled lift buttons and ate lunch at their desks. Pedestrians glanced at their watches and stepped up their pace. Was André right? Or was he just buying the national myth? I decided to try and find out.

I started my research with a 2006 ‘Pace of Life’ study by Richard Wiseman, Professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. His team measured the time it took city-dwellers to walk 60 feet (18.3 metres) along a footpath in 32 cities around the world. The work built upon a 1994 study by Professor Robert Levine from the California State University, which found walking pace gave a reliable measure of a society’s pace of life, with faster cities less likely to help others and more likely to suffer heart disease. Wiseman’s study ranked the cities’ walking times (in seconds) as:

1) Singapore (Singapore): 10.55

2) Copenhagen (Denmark): 10.82

3) Madrid (Spain): 10.89

4) Guangzhou (China): 10.94

5) Dublin (Ireland): 11.03

6) Curitiba (Brazil): 11.13

7) Berlin (Germany): 11.16

8) New York (USA): 12.00

9) Utrecht (Netherlands): 12.04

10) Vienna (Austria): 12.06

11) Warsaw (Poland): 12.07

12) London (United Kingdom): 12.17

13) Zagreb (Croatia): 12.20

14) Prague (Czech Republic): 12.35

15) Wellington (New Zealand): 12.62

16) Paris (France): 12.65

17) Stockholm (Sweden): 12.75

18) Ljubljana (Slovenia): 12.76

19) Tokyo (Japan): 12.83

20) Ottawa (Canada): 13.72

21) Harare (Zimbabwe): 13.92

22) Sofia (Bulgaria): 13.96

23) Taipei (Taiwan): 14.00

24) Cairo (Egypt): 14.18

26) Bucharest (Romania): 14.36

27) Dubai (United Arab Emirates): 14.64

28) Damascus (Syria): 14.94

29) Amman (Jordan): 15.95

30) Bern (Switzerland): 17.37

31) Manama (Bahrain): 17.69

32) Blantyre (Malawi): 31.60

The study was interesting, but it didn’t help me much – Australia wasn’t among the counties included. But I was curious, would Aussies laconically lope or speedily stride?

Measuring 18.3 metres on a busy Melbourne footpath attracted a few bemused stares from passing pedestrians. The footpath I choose – a section between A’Beckett and Little Latrobe streets in the city – was flat and free from obstacles as specified in the Wiseman study. Their procedure required timing 35 men and 35 women who were unencumbered by shopping bags and not distracted by mobile phones, friends or colleagues, between 11.30 and 2 in the afternoon.

Having marked the required distance on the footpath with masking tape, I lurked on the other side of the road with my stopwatch, taking times and recording them in my notebook. When I crunched the numbers I found that Melbournians walked the distance in an average of 10.99 seconds: the fifth fastest of all the countries studied. As I had suspected, we were rushed, but were we rude? Did this pacy perambulation mean we were stressed out? Were fast nations less happy than our cruising cousins?

A 2005 World Values Survey gave me a few clues. The survey asked people from 50 nations, ‘Taking all things together, would you say you are: very happy, quite happy, not very happy, or not happy at all?’ Australia was the fifth happiest nation, behind Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. Similar surveys confirmed the same thing: Australia is a very happy country.

Okay, so we’re happy – good news. But what about my gut-feeling that Australians are more stressed than they used to be? Was our happiness rising or falling?

A research paper by Ronald Inglehart, Roberto Foa, Christopher Peterson and Christian Welzel, “Social Change, Freedom and Rising Happiness” included a helpful internet appendix:

While happiness is apparently a tricky thing to measure, the graph shows a clear trend: while we’re pretty damn happy on a world scale, our happiness is decreasing. It is a trend that’s true for many other developed counties too, a phenomenon known as the ‘Easterlin Paradox’.

The Easterlin Paradox was named after Richard Easterlin, author of the seminal 1974 paper ‘Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?’. Easterlin found that each nation’s  happiness levels remain largely static over time regardless of economic growth. For prosperous, democratic and tolerant societies like Australia, happiness largely depends on the amount of time we spend with friends and family, our health and the breadth of our personal freedoms. So why does our happiness seem to be declining?

One possible explanation is the long hours our jobs often demand. A 2003 OECD study showed that Australians work more hours per year than any other surveyed nation, even more than the famously hardworking Japanese. And while working more may increase our wealth, it can impact on our health and reduce the time we spend with friends and family – things that the studies indicate make us happy.

So it seems André was right, or at least partially. Australians are happy people, but perhaps not the smiling slackers of international fame. The studies imply that we are working too hard, creating pressures that can be measured in our frantic pacing along city streets. Perhaps we have somehow become convinced that it’s the pursuit of wealth that will make us happy, rather than the ‘quality of life’ issues indicated in the studies.

All of which is just a very longwinded way to say that I’m due for another holiday – we are all due for another holiday – part of our civic duty to raise the nation’s happiness. So, a shout out to my friend André – save a wave for me.

 

This article was originally published in 21D.