diamond geezer

 Thursday, October 24, 2013

How happy would you say you are? That's on a scale from zero to ten, with zero being "not at all" and ten being "completely". Picked a number? Great, now let's carry on.

The Office for National Statistics asked Britons from all across the country how happy they are, and crunched the numbers to create a sort of "happiness index". Yesterday they published their latest report, and it turns out that Londoners are some of the least happy people in the UK. Those living in the North East had a lower happiness score but everyone else beat London, with Northern Ireland coming out on top. Scotland is happier than Wales, apparently, and both of those countries are happier than England. I wonder how unhappy that makes you feel.

It's possible to dig down a little deeper into London's happiness figures and explore happiness by borough. So I've done precisely that, and here's a map, with purple the happiest colour and cream the unhappiest.

Look how happy the residents of Kensington and Chelsea are. They're the only borough to score over 7½, which is probably because they're well-to-do and comfortable and secure. But see how unhappy neighbouring Hammersmith and Fulham is, which'll be Shepherd's Bush dragging the area down. And Islington, which'll be all that middle-class angst. And Lambeth, which perhaps doesn't surprise you. And Barking and Dagenham, because it's Barking and Dagenham. Meanwhile look at that red ring of contentedness around outer London. Specifically outer West London, because things aren't quite so happy out in outer east London. Apart from Bromley, that is, where they enjoy rural living. And inner London's not a happy place at all, as you'd expect. Except the City is. And Tower Hamlets is and Newham is, which doesn't quite make sense does it? In fact all the conclusions I've drawn above are drivel, because this entire map is mostly patternless, so you can read pretty much what you like into it.

Let's rewind a little and look at the precise figures. The average happiness score in London is actually 7.21. Meanwhile the average in the North East is 7.17, which seems an extraordinarily accurate figure for a "pick a number from zero to ten" statistic. Perhaps one decimal place might be more realistic, in which case both regions come out the same at 7.2. Meanwhile England scored 7.28, Wales scored 7.29 and Scotland scored 7.32, and they're all almost exactly the same too. Around 7.3. Just over 7. About 7 out of 10. Indeed every single district in Britain comes out as "about 7" (or in special places 8). We're all pretty much as happy as each other, so to try to compare Liverpool's 6.79 with the Orkneys' 8.01 feels somewhat forced.

Now let's go back and review London's precise figures. Kensington and Chelsea scored a maximum 7.51. All the red boroughs on the map managed somewhere between 7¼ and 7½, the pink between 7 and 7¼, and the four cream boroughs dribbled in just below 7. The ONS did ask thirteen thousand Londoners for their opinions, which gives the figures some statistical credibility. But the whole idea of measuring happiness to two decimal places is patently ridiculous. Essentially the whole of London scored about 7 out of 10, and Newham isn't really much happier than Barking and Dagenham, that's just a stupid statistic.

Let's see what the media made of the data on anxiety.
"People living in London are on average the most anxious in the UK, new figures suggest. More than one in five Londoners questioned by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said they had high anxiety levels. The ONS asked people to rate their life satisfaction and personal wellbeing on a scale of zero to ten - zero being "not at all" and ten being "completely". Londoners rated their anxiety as 3.3, which was the highest average rating for anxiety in the UK. The average rating across the UK was 3."
That's a BBC story from yesterday, which makes Londoners out to be inherently more anxious than the rest of the country. And yet the whole of the UK scored roughly 3, apart from a few calm spots scoring 2 (well done Wolverhampton) and a handful of paranoid boltholes on 4 (hmmm, Horsham, West Sussex). We're all roughly 3. Even if the fine detail suggests otherwise, there is no news story here.

Next let's look at the London anxiety map...

Again purple areas are the most anxious and cream the least. See how the wealthier boroughs of west London are hotbeds of anxiety (apart from those that aren't). See how north Londoners are the least anxious (apart from those who aren't). See how Hackney is very anxious (but, oh, Tower Hamlets nextdoor isn't). And see how the City of London is, er, blank (the survey only asked four people in the City, so there's no reliable data). The ONS recognise that their confidence values aren't great, and have been up-front in stating these in the table. But that's not stopped various people pontificating about the headline figures and making judgements that are wholly unfounded.
Dawn Snape, head of personal wellbeing at the ONS, said: "London has the most disposable income but very little life satisfaction and very high anxiety." The ONS said a number of factors could contribute to the ratings, including the fact that London had the highest crime rates and the highest population growth.
Oh please. London does not have "very little life satisfaction" - it averaged 7.3 on that score whereas the whole of England averaged 7.4. Neither does London have "very high anxiety" - we scored 3.3 to England's 3.1. No, instead someone's asking damned stupid questions, looking for depth in data where really there are only broad brush trends.

What's sad is that someone thinks the happiness of the nation can be measured, and compared, and tracked over time, by asking a subjective "zero to ten" question. We can't blame the ONS, they're only doing their job, indeed they did lots of research to try to come up with a convincing methodology. Instead the original idea was proposed by the government, seeking some way of gauging wellbeing in addition to the normal economic data. An intriguing idea, potentially, but instead we've ended up with a blunt instrument that proves nothing being taken far too seriously. Northern Ireland may be happier than London, to one decimal place, but attempting to argue why for political effect is wholly subjective and ripe for misinterpretation.

Instead let's just smile. We're all about 7 happy and 3 anxious. It could be much worse.

» Measuring National Well-being (ONS)
» Personal Well-being Across the UK, 2012/13 (ONS)
» Fairly meaningless maps; fairly meaningless graphs; more fairly meaningless graphs

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