Could you be happier? - Figures reveal low levels of happiness in the North East

People in some parts of the North East are reporting some of the country's lowest levels of happiness, self-worth and life satisfaction. Rachel Wearmouth takes a look at the figures

Albert Einstein once asked what could a man need to be happy but a table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin.

The search for what exactly makes people happy continues to this day and has now become official Government business, with the Office for National Statistics releases its latest Measuring Well-Being survey data.

Derided as a waste of cash by many, David Cameron launched the project shortly after the coalition took power and hopes the large-scale survey will help to solve the puzzle of what makes us smile.

It asks people four key questions: how satisfied they are with life, how worthwhile life is, how happy they were yesterday and how anxious they were yesterday. The survey, set against a programme of austerity and a falling crime rate, has thrown up some surprising results for the region.

It has shown levels of well-being overall to have improved since last year, with people less likely to report extreme feelings.

That said, there are anomalies.

 

County Durham has some of the lowest overall scores on all four indicators in England, with more than a quarter of people in the area rating their anxiety yesterday as 9 or 10. The area, traditionally reliant on the public sector, has seen joblessness rise and services cut.

The figures are in stark contrast to North Tyneside – which on average has a higher proportion of wealthy areas – where more than a third of people rated how worthwhile their life was as 9 or 10.

Meanwhile, across the river in South Tyneside one in 14 people rated how worthwhile their life is as 0 to 4, amongst the lowest score for this category in the country.

In fact, South Tyneside is, according to the statistics, the 10th most unhappy place in the UK, with one in 6 people rating their happiness yesterday as 0 to 4.

Newcastle as a city was among the ‘happier’ places, coming just behind Edinburgh, Leeds, Nottingham and Swansea for its overall rating.

Since the last survey a year ago, people are reporting on average that their wellbeing has improved, though the South West and South East regions still enjoy the highest ratings of life satisfaction in the country.

There remains, however, widespread scepticism about the survey and whether it contributes anything useful.

Some have dismissed it as gimmicky politics from the Prime Minister and have called for the cash spent on the project – estimated to be around £1.5m – to instead be ploughed into services like children’s centres or mental health projects.

Professor Daniel Nettle, professor of Behavioural Science at Newcastle University, however, has warned people to take the results with a pinch of salt.

“The first thing I would say is, the differences between the regions are tiny,” he said. “We are talking about the difference between 7.3 and 7.8 and this is not a dramatic difference.

“I am dubious about the whole thing – it could be statistical variation.

“What is interesting is is the deprived parts of the region and the affluent parts may be fractionally different.

“But Durham has a small number of people and some of those people may be unhappy.”

He said a high unemployment rate in some parts of the region could be an explanation but while it may be tempting to read into some of the numbers and conclude that socio-economic factors are at play, the truth may be much simpler.

“We know that those questions [how you felt yesterday] will mean that what happened yesterday will have a massive influence on the answers,” he said.

“That doesn’t tell you anything objective about an area over a long period of time and there is no evidence that it will be a long-lasting difference.”

Prof Nettle said in his experience job security and good public services were among the factors likely to boost happiness, but more personal concerns, such as relationships, were likely to have a bigger impact.

Those thinking of moving to a city like London might find they fare no better.

The capital had on average the lowest ratings for life satisfaction, and the highest anxiety levels of anywhere in the UK.

Those living in small, remote communities, such as the Western Isles, Orkney or Shetland, report being the best scores in all four categories.

But Prof Nettle said the research is not revealing anything new and said the Government should reconsider.

“I think this survey is a tremendous waste of money,” he added. “People have carried out a lot of research in this area in different countries and at different times.

“The answer has always been around seven and a half out of 10. It may be a little bit more and a little bit less.

“Happiness is a very personal thing and I don’t think this survey tells us anything more than that.

“I guess it is a nice thing to ask your citizens how happy they are but we know that, say, unemployment or divorce makes people unhappy and we could have guessed that.

“This money would be much better spent on the NHS.”

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