Simon Kelner: House prices may be root of southern unhappiness

Kelner's view

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The Independent Online

I know only one person from Carlisle, and I have to say he's a pretty cheerful, laid-back kind of guy. So, allowing for the very limited nature of this anecdotal evidence, it didn't come as a huge surprise to me that Carlisle has just been named as having the happiest inhabitants in Engetland.

Here, on the north-west frontier with Scotland, the levels of contentment – measured in terms of how people feel about their home, their personal prosperity, and their community – are way above the national average, and contrast starkly with the poor denizens of east London, who are officially the most miserable people in England.

These are the headline results of a survey of 25,000 households undertaken by a property company, which is more interesting for its general, rather than its particular, findings. They reveal, for example, that there is another, possibly more profound, north-south divide: seven of the places in the top 10 for happiness are in the north.

There may be specific reasons for the citizens of Carlisle to feel pleased with their lot – pride in their attractive city, with its Norman castle, impressive cathedral and splendid Victorian train station; the surrounding countryside and easy access to the Lake District; and, of course, as the home of Carr's water biscuits and the Eddie Stobart fleet.

But maybe a wider truth is being exposed here. The survey's respondents graded their satisfaction with various aspects of their life, which included how safe they felt in their immediate environment, how friendly their neighbours were, and how well they regarded the local amenities. But they were also asked about more pressing individual concerns: for instance, whether they were anxious about the value of their property and whether they were happy with its decorative condition and, crucially, it size.

There were, of course, some interesting individual results: people in Harrogate had the highest levels of contentment with their home, those in Oldham were the least happy with local amenities and, in north-west London, they felt most satisfied with the price of their house.

It is the trend that emerges once the findings are assimilated that is most revealing, and, using the specific criteria relating to, and around, home ownership, northerners have emerged, quite markedly, as happier souls. Now I know this is a dangerous extrapolation, but is it just possible that people in the north are less concerned about house prices? And could that be one of the key ingredients in a recipe for personal happiness?

I'm not saying that everyone north of Watford Gap has no interest in the property market, but my feeling is that it's much less likely to be a subject of dinner party conversation in Warrington than it is in Wandsworth. Similarly, the extreme disparities between rich and poor – more pronounced in the south – are calculated to have a negative effect on personal contentment.

But perhaps that's a generalisation too far. It may just be coincidence that my friend from Carlisle embodies the qualities highlighted by this survey: contentment, pride and security. It could also be, as he himself pointed out, that he hasn't lived in Carlisle for 40 years.