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Simon Kelner: Happiness is a warm survey, unless you're in Arran


What is it about the Isle of Arran? Why is everyone so unhappy there? In the latest stage of David Cameron's quest to measure the happiness of the nation, the Office for National Statistics has just published a map of the British Isles showing levels of general contentment. There are not that many surprises: people in urban areas generally have a higher level of anxiety and unhappiness than those who live in the country. Someone in Hackney feels a greater sense of anxiety than someone in Haverfordwest. I know. Astonishing, isn't it? But when you look in detail at the happiness map of Britain, the Isle of Arran – alongside the West Midlands, Greater London and the Glasgow area – is painted in the darkest of hues.

Surely, this cannot be right. I don't know very much about the Isle of Arran, but have learnt from its tourist blurb that it has "a remarkable diversity of landscapes and seascapes" and that its "pretty villages... are complemented by a rugged and mountainous interior in the north and green rolling hills and woodlands in the south". Blimey. Doesn't sound like a recipe for unhappiness to me. They should try the Tube when its 90 degrees in the shade, or being stuck in traffic in central London while an Olympic plutocrat speeds past on his way to a Coca-Cola-sponsored junket.

Of course, it could be that Arran is included in a more urbanised unitary area, or maybe the survey just caught the islanders at the wrong time. One of the four questions asked – to more than 160,000 respondents – was: "Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?"

I am sure students of applied statistics will say there is a very good reason for framing the question this way and I know the purpose is to give a snapshot of the nation's emotional health, but isn't happiness about the present rather than the past? Shouldn't we be encouraging people to live in the moment?

In truth, I can't really remember how I felt yesterday and in a way it doesn't matter. Happiness may indeed be something that, in the way of footballers, you take one day at a time, but I don't think it can be accurately measured that way. Labour has rubbished the survey as "a statement of the bleeding obvious", and many of the results are indeed predictable. Mr Cameron has said that this work was crucial to discovering what his government could do to "really improve lives", but I am finding it hard to see how this study can translate into policy. The ONS said "understanding people's views of well-being is an important addition to existing statistics and has potential uses in the policy-making process", but I worry that this is just empty sentiment.

This survey is endlessly fascinating – who knew that women are both happier and more anxious than men? Make your own conclusions – but I think that, in the end, it plays more to our voyeuristic tendencies than our desire for change.