FEATURE26 March 2015

Take the test: Does where we live in Britain make us happy?


The BBC’s Happiness Test set the nation talking about where they lived, and where they should be living to make them happy. But what of the research behind it? By Iain Carruthers


Outside of being a gift to estate agents (if you’re loud and intolerant, Slough is for you), what merit does this survey have? It’ll make Smug of Tunbridge Wells smugger, Depressed of South Shields more depressed. Does it show that like-minded people are drawn to certain areas, or does living in a certain area affect your personality? Apparently Barrow-in-Furness is the most neurotic part of the UK.

First off, this is a fantastic initiative from the BBC and the Cambridge academics involved. It’s a great follow up to the Great British class calculator. It’s exactly what our industry should be doing more of: taking publicly available data sets and making them user friendly for citizens and consumers. It helps us play the parlour game of ‘where do I want to live because it’s probably not here’. At a personal level, it confirms what I always suspected – that I should be opening a branch office of ICM Unlimited in Settle.

It makes a couple of mistakes. Firstly, the tyranny of the ‘average’ is at work. It can’t help but misrepresent each region or local authority which is a particular issue in London boroughs. I’m lumped into Ealing, which contains everything from BBC execs in semis to some of the most diverse estates in London. One of my colleagues would be 3% happier if he moved to the City of London, others would apparently be happier living in North Lincolnshire or Stratford-upon-Avon.

Secondly, there’s a paradox at the heart of this: are different personality types attracted to different areas, or is this much more about how your context forms you? In other words, how much is where people live a result of their personality, or is their personality a result of where they live?

Many readers of Research-live.com might reflect that their individual levels of stress, control and agreeableness are heavily influenced by the fact that they are white collar commuters with stressful jobs. Also we have social identities, not just personal ones: the identity of many regions/areas is built around certain myths – that northerners are friendlier, southerners more controlling and neurotic. So perhaps we’re doing nothing but feeding our own myths. So if we expanded this to a country level would it still make sense?

From a methodological perspective this was a self-selecting not random sample of those with access to the internet, so it has every chance of under-representing the retired or tech illiterate. Another consideration is whether social economic mix was controlled during or after the research. This will surely impact on general happiness as much as personality, so ideally should be controlled within each local authority for a truly balanced perspective. Finally, let’s consider the macro-economic changes that have occurred since this study took place ( 2009 ) and decide if it’s appropriate to compare personalities recorded during this recent period of economic optimism with data collected so immediately after the financial collapse. 

How useful is this for the man on the street is an altogether different question. We know, for example, that London is where the prosperity is in the UK and that places like the North East and Wales are typically the most depressed in the UK – so from this perspective this study says nothing new.

Despite these misgivings, this is great fun. And, frankly, not enough research is. It puts insight into the hands of individuals and gets them talking about it.

Iain Carruthers is a director at ICM Unlimited

1 Comment

9 years ago

Good points, on both sides of the argument, there. I agree that this is a good example of highlighting how what researchers do can be put to use - and arguably more robust than YouGov's PR stunts of "people who eat blue cheese are aged 57 and left-handed" last year. Your points about the tyranny of averages are also very valid, but arguably even things like Mosaic/ ACORN suffer from the same issues, no?

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