Oliver James: Wealth warning

Contrary to the evidence of the flattering photograph displayed here each week, for the last six months I have not been in Britain (some of the respondents to my series on mental illness would suggest my brain was absent as well). Rather, for a study backed by the British Council, I have been investigating middle-class angst around the world. Thus far I have studied the citizens of Sydney, New Zealand, Singapore and Shanghai. Those of Moscow, New York and Copenhagen eagerly await my visit.

The question which intrigued the British Council and I was: 'Why are the middle-classes throughout the developed world so much more screwed up compared with 1950, despite being far more affluent?' In each country, the local British Council bods line me up with specimens of middle-class misery and I prod and probe to see if it takes different forms in different cultures, a kind of Mind Tourism.

I always assumed the British Council consisted of spooks posing as university lecturers and spooky lech(tu)rers à la David Lodge. While I cannot assert with absolute authority that there are no spooks in their midst, I am pretty sure that most British Council staff are not spies. Rather, they are in 110 countries teaching English and promoting UK achievements in science, art, education and human rights, from Uriah Heep to Dolly the sheep, from Amnesty to the Prodigy, from Ophelia to Jamelia. They help the world 's young geniuses study in Britain and they help people like me study the world.

I can summarise similarities in my findings to date as follows: to an astonishing extent, the lives of the middle-classes in all four countries are dominated by property prices and school fees; the women of all but New Zealand are obsessed with the shape of their bodies; Starbucks tastes the same in all the countries, with identical rules forbidding smoking in their emporia.

There are, of course, certain differences. Despite 20 years of Third Way bullshit from their government, the New Zealand people are a model of authenticity and decency. The Sydney Aussies are fast disappearing down the American plughole, drowning in avulgar materialism. At least they still like sex. In Singapore, a socking great shopping mall, lust for money and career success has so replaced lust that the state has to mount campaigns to encourage nooky among the young.

By contrast, Shanghai throbs with consumerism rather than being rendered impotent by it. The trouble is, not only does it want to be the New York of the east, it will very likely succeed. Its leading psychiatrist estimates that it will be merely 20 years before it has the same rates of depression and angst as that capitalist heart of darkness.

So, guv, you 've been round the world: what 's the secret to happiness? Apart from religion (found in nearly all the happy people I've met), it's too early to say, apart from this: if you must support a football team, let it not be Chelsea or England.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.