Why happiness is a postcode lottery

They share a border, but the districts of Powys and Rhondda Cynon Taff are on different planets according to a national survey of contentment
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The Independent Online

They're both in Wales, they're both predominantly hilly areas, and in fact they're next door to each other; but in terms of human happiness, they could not be more different.

Powys, the principality's largest county, and the borough of Rhondda Cynon Taff to the immediate south of it, stand at opposite ends of the contentment scale, a new study shows.

People in the former, a vast stretch of unspoilt hills watered by salmon rivers and dotted with small and attractive market towns, have the greatest sense of "subjective well-being" out of 273 areas covering all of Britain; the citizens of the latter, centred on the wrecked industrial and mining landscape of the Rhondda Valley, have the least.

Anyone who knows both would suspect there to be differences, but the extreme extent of the polarity on either side of the local authority boundary, suggested by research presented at the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society still comes as a shock. It is the conclusion of a survey attempting to measure happiness across the country, not by focusing on income, health and quality of life in a given area, as other surveys have done, but by seeking a direct measure, from individuals, of "subjective well-being", that is, how people actually feel about their lives.

That measure is based on their answers to a dozen questions, asked by the highly respected British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) ranging from, "Have you recently been able to concentrate on what you are doing?" and, "Have you recently lost much sleep over worry?" to, "Have you been thinking of yourself as a worthless person?" The score ranges from zero (content) to 36 (definitely not happy at all).

The BHPS, a major investigation of social conditions and attitudes, has been tracking the same group of more than 10,000 households since 1991. It is based on local authorities grouped together into units of more than 120,000 people for the purpose of the national census.

Using data from the survey, the resulting 273 districts have been ranked in order of subjective wellbeing by Dr Dimitris Ballas, of the University of Sheffield, and Dr Mark Tranmer, of the University of Manchester, in a paper presented at the conference yesterday.

Powys (officially the former councils of Brecknock, Montgomery and Radnor) comes top of the happiness list, followed by Manchester, then the combined district of East Staffordshire (centred around Burton on Trent and Uttoxeter) and the Staffordshire moorlands (centred around Cheadle and Leek).

Eight of the top 10 happiest places are in Scotland and the north of England, the study shows. Greater London's only representative in the top 40 is the borough of Sutton at number 14.

At the lower end of the scale, Cynon Valley and Rhondda (a district based on 1991 local authority boundaries, but now equivalent to Rhondda Cynon Taff) is at the bottom, next to the district of Merthyr Tydfil, Rhymney Valley and Taff Ely (a 1991 boundaries district now split between the boroughs of Merthyr and Caerphilly). So the south Wales valleys take the wooden spoon for national happiness. The third most unhappy district is given as Doncaster in South Yorkshire.

But, if the table is done a different way, and local variations are allowed for, including age, income, employment status, health and educational qualifications, the unhappiest place in Britain comes out as Edinburgh (11th most unhappiest in the simple table). This may come as a surprise to festival-goers, or tourists who only see Princes Street and the Georgian splendours of the New Town. But not to anyone acquainted with the drug-fuelled deprivation of the 1970s housing schemes built around the city's outskirts when the old tenement buildings were cleared.

Reactions to the survey were naturally very different yesterday in the areas labelled happiest and unhappiest in the country. Glenys Smith is town clerk of Montgomery, one of Powys's prettiest towns, which draws many visitors with its ancient castle, Georgian architecture and surrounding sylvan landscape. "It's a slower pace here," she said. "It's a country pace, rather than rushing about in the city. The traffic problems are not so severe. The countryside is magnificent and there are green fields everywhere, just a short distance outside towns.

"Of course we've all got our problems in the present economic crisis but people just go about their business and in these small towns there's a real feeling of community. And also, people are proud of their Welshness, which gives them a real sense of identity. If you have that in a lovely landscape, maybe that's why people are happy here."

But Russell Roberts, leader of Rhondda Cynon Taff council, challenged the basis of the survey. "If they did 10,000 households for the whole of Britain, then how many did they do here?" he said. "Who did they talk to? If they talked to someone in a deprived area, they might get someone who felt depressed, but we are a diverse district. We have some of the most deprived wards in Wales, but we also have some of the richest. People can say they're depressed for personal reasons. They may be bereaved, they may have just got divorced. Surveys can say all sorts of different things.

"As far as I am concerned, and many good people who live here, relatives, friends, acquaintances, people involved in the community and the economy, we are happy to be within Rhondda Cynon Taff. Yes, we have had our difficulties, but I firmly believe we are moving forward and have made good progress. I believe that the outlook for Rhondda Cynon Taff has certainly improved and is going to continue to improve."

Other local residents shared his stance. "I would reject the idea that we are the unhappiest place in Britain," said Maureen Hybart, 76, former president of the Pontyclun Women's Institute. "There's a real sense of community in the [south Wales] valleys. How can you be unhappy when you have your friends around you?"

The Rev Eric Jones, 70, recently retired from Highland Place Unitarian Church in Aberdare, said: "I'm a bit surprised. I wouldn't say it was a bad place to live. Although maybe the living conditions could be improved. When you compare the [south Wales] valleys to Cardiff, which is only 25 miles away, some of the facilities leave a lot to be desired."

But a straw poll of Powys residents found them agreeing with the survey. "It's just lovely," said John Bentley, 43, landlord of the Lion Inn in Sennybridge. "It's Wales. People are pleasant, and it's just country living, I suppose. Everyone seems happy, and there are no city pressures."

Dr Ballas and Dr Tranmer did not investigate formally why people in a certain area might be more inclined to happiness rather than depression. Dr Ballas said that he could only guess. "There really is something about the intrinsic nature of places which can influence happiness and wellbeing," he said. "The environment, lack of green spaces, air and noise pollution, crime rates: all of these influence happiness."

But upping sticks tomorrow and moving to Powys or Manchester or anywhere else high on the list is not the way to find happiness. The research finds that wellbeing is closely linked to staying at your present address, and contentment is boosted by living in your home for at least five years.

Additional reporting by Rob Lee

British Household Survey's 12 questions

1) Have you recently been able to concentrate on what you are doing?

a) better than usual

b) same as usual

c) less than usual

d) much less than usual

2) Have you... lost much sleep over worry?

a) not at all

b) no more than usual

c) rather more than usual

d) much more than usual

3) Have you... felt that you are playing a useful part in things?

a) more than usual

b) same as usual

c) less than usual

d) much less than usual

4) Have you... felt capable of making decisions about things?

a) more than usual

b) same as usual

c) less than usual

d) much less than usual

5) Have you... felt constantly under strain?

a) not at all

b) no more than usual

c) rather more than usual

d) much more than usual

6) Have you... felt you could not overcome your difficulties?

a)not at all

b) no more than usual

c) rather more than usual

d) much more than usual

7) Have you been able to enjoy normal day to day activities?

a) more than usual

b) same as usual

c) less than usual

d) much less than usual

8) Have you been able to face up to your problems?

a) more than usual

b) same as usual

c) less than usual

d) much less than usual

9) Have you been feeling unhappy and depressed?

a) not at all

b) no more than usual

c) rather more than usual

d) much more than usual

10) Have you been losing confidence in yourself?

a) not at all

b) no more than usual

c) rather more than usual

d) much more than usual

11) Have you been thinking of yourself as a worthless person?

a) not at all

b) no more than usual

c) rather more than usual

d) much more than usual

12) Have you recently been feeling reasonably happy, all things considered?

a) More than usual

b) same as usual

c) less than usual

d) much less than usual.

Score, out of a total of 36: a) = 0; b) = 1; c) = 2; d) = 3.

Score 0 and you're the happiest person in the kingdom; score 36 and you're the unhappiest

The happy league in full

1 Brecknock, Montgomery and Radnor (Powys)

2 Manchester

3 E. Staff & StaffMoor

4 West Lothian

5 Cunninghame

6 Chelmsford

7 Badenoch & Strathspey

8 Clackmannan; Stirling

9 Colchester

10 Macclesfield

11 Cthrpes.G Grmsby

12 N Herts.Stevnage

13 E Nhamps.Wlngbgh

14 Sutton

15 Argyll & Bute; Dumbarton; Inverclyde

16 Frst/Dean.Stroud

17 St Helens

18 Dumfries & Galloway

19 Barrw/Fur.Copeld

20 Berwickshire; East Lothian etc

21 Cumbernauld & Kilsyth; Monklands

22 Ogwr

23 Babergh.Ipswich

24 Gordon; Kincardine & Deeside

25 E&WLindsey.Lincn

26 Woodspring

27 Falkirk

28 Nottingham

29 Sevoaks.Tonb&Mal

30 Bradford

31 Nwctle/Lyme.Staf

32 Newbury

33 Strtfd/Avn.Warwk

34 Chichstr. Horsham

35 Braintree.Uttfrd

36 Congle.Crewe.VR

37 Cherwell

38 Corby. Kettering

39 Sefton

40 Plymouth

41 Stoke-on-Trent

42 Winchester

43 Beverley.Bthfery

44 Gillingham.Swale

45 Barnet

46 Islington

47 Wirral

48 Brighton

49 Purb.W Dors.Wy&P

50 Vale of Glamorgan

51 Bury

52 Kerrier.Pen.IoSc

53 Trafford

54 Alldale.Carlisle

55 Carrick.Rstormel

56 Huntingdonshire

57 Lichfld. Tamworth

58 ForHth.MSflk.StE

59 E Cams.Fenland

60 Luton

61 Milton Keynes

62 Northampton

63 Portsmouth

64 Waltham Forest

65 N Kstvn.S Kstvn

66 Merton

67 North Tyneside

68 Halton

69 Crawley.M Sussex

70 Rotherham

71 Angus; Perth & Kinross

72 Ashfld.Mansfld

73 Newport

74 E Yorks.Hldrness

75 Hillingdon

76 Solihull

77 Three Rvrs.Wtfrd

78 Bastlw.Newk&Shwd

79 An.Ber.Mor.Tdale

80 Rgate/Ban.Tandge

81 Lancaster

82 Bearsden & Milngavie; Clydebank; Strathkelvin

83 Brcklnd.S Nrflk

84 NWar.Nun&Bed.Rug

85 Wokingham

86 St Albans

87 Aylesbury Vale

88 Aberconwy, Arfon, Dwyfor, Meirionnydd and Ynys Mon

89 Banff & Buchan; Moray

90 S Hams.W Devon

91 Blackpool

92 Hammsmith/Fulham

93 New Forest

94 Kennet.Salisbury

95 Tameside

96 Knowsley

97 Birmingham

98 Dunfermline

99 C/Ldn.C/Wminster

100 Wycombe

101 Darlington.Tdale

102 Newcastle/Tyne

103 Hrtsmr.Wlyn Htfd

104 Suff Cstal.Wveny

105 Hackney

106 Exeter.Tnbridge

107 Preston

108 Hrtlpol.Stktn/Ts

109 East Kilbride; Hamilton

110 Brntwd.EpFor.Har

111 Rochdale

112 Calderdale

113 Redbridge

114 Motherwell

115 Medina; South Wight

116 Tower Hamlets

117 Redditch.Wychavn

118 Cambrdge.S Cams

119 N Wilts.W Wilts

120 Thanet

121 Runnymde.Splthne

122 Hastings.Rother

123 Bolton

124 N Beds

125 Dacorum

126 Caradon.N Crnwal

127 Knsingtn/Chelsea

128 Dudley

129 Crv.Hmbtn.Richsh

130 Kingston/Thames

131 N Devon.Torridge

132 Mole V.Waverley

133 Burnley.Pendle

134 Lambeth

135 South Somerset

136 Camden

137 Bristol

138 Can Chse, S Stafs

139 Alyn and Deeside, Delyn and Wrexham Maelor

140 Oldham

141 Hinck&Bos.NWLeic

142 Salford

143 N&S Shrop.Oswtry

144 Mlvrn Hs.Wrcster

145 The Wrekin

146 Broadlnd.Norwich

147 Colwyn, Glyndwr and Rhuddlan

148 Wandsworth

149 C/Point.Mald.Rfd

150 Southwark

151 Fylde.Wyre

152 Bournemouth

153 Charnwood

154 Brent

155 Chiltern and S. Bucks

156 Kingston/Hull

157 Wealdon

158 Dartfrd.Graveshm

159 Mendip.Sedgemoor

160 Eden.S Lakeland

161 Sunderland

162 H Peak.Derbs Dls

163 Walsall

164 Chltham.Cotswold

165 Basildon

166 Bexley

167 Adur.Worthing

168 E Hams.Havant

169 Ebrne.Hove.Lewes

170 Harbgh.Melt.Rutd

171 Hounslow

172 Peterborough

173 Brox.Gedlg.Rushc

174 Erewash.S Derbs

175 Lewisham

176 Tendring

177 Arun

178 Selby.York

179 Eastwood; Kilmarnock & Loudoun

180 Thamesdown

181 Northavon

182 Ealing

183 Lliw Valley, Neath, Port Talbort(Afan)

184 Middlesborough

185 Hyndbrn.Rosendle

186 Langbaurgh/Tees

187 Tuntn Dne. W Soms

188 Bromley

189 Blyth V.Wansbeck

190 Torbay

191 Stockport

192 Surrey Hth.Wking

193 Enfield

194 Hrfd.Leo.S Hrfds

195 Oxfd.VofWH.WOxon

196 Boston.S Holland

197 Canterbury

198 Kirkcaldy; North East Fife

199 Elmbge.Epsm/Ewel

200 S Oxfordshire

201 Richmond/Thames

202 Guildford

203 Derby

204 Windsor/Maidenhd

205 Barnsley

206 Aberdeen City

207 Rochester/Medway

208 Chorley. W Lancs

209 Brack Fst.Slough

210 Brxbourn.E Herts

211 Hart.Rushmoor

212 Newham

213 Harrogate

214 Kngs Lyn/W Nrflk

215 Wigan

216 Maidstone

217 Easingtn. Sedgefd

218 Bath.Kwood. Wdyke

219 Haringey

220 Chest/St.Durham

221 E Devon.M Devon

222 Warrington

223 Rbble V.S Rbble

224 Chester.E/Port

225 Glnfrd.Scunthrpe

226 M Beds.S Beds

227 Camarthen, Dinefwr and Llanelli

228 G Yarmth.N Nrflk

229 Basingstoke/Dean

230 Liverpool

231 Caithness; Sutherland etc

232 Reading

233 Wolverhampton

234 Ryedale.Scarbrgh

235 Coventry

236 BdgN.Shrews&Atch

237 Kirklees

238 Leicester

239 Wakefield

240 Leeds

241 Sheffield

242 Glcster.Tewksbry

243 Ceredigion, Preseli and S. Pembrokesire

244 Barking/Dagenham

245 Gateshead

246 Havering

247 Brmsgrve.Wyre Fs

248 Southampton

249 Eastl.Fare.Gospt

250 Croydon

251 Dvntry.S Nhamps

252 Harrow

253 Derwentsd.Wear V

254 Christ.N&EDorset

255 Renfrew

256 Cardiff

257 Ashfrd.Tunbrgwls

258 Greenwich

259 Blaenau Gwent and Islwyn

260 Monmouth and Torfean

261 Poole

262 Edinburgh City

263 Dundee City

264 Clydesdale; Cumnock & Doon Valley; Kyle & Carrick

265 Bolsovr.Chestfld

266 Amber V.NE Derbs

267 Sandwell

268 Glasgow City

269 Swansea

270 Blackburn

271 Doncaster

272 Merthyr Tydfil, Rhymney Valley and Taff-Ely

273 Cynon Valley and Rhondda