A statistical geographer I know is fond of reminding me “the statistic is a social relation”: Now, this is one of those weaselly catch-all phrases that academics are fond of using to encapsulate a number of different sins. But while it’s frustratingly vague, It does work as a watchword for an age where ‘big data’ is presented as the solution to a multitude of problems. So when the latest ONS release on happiness was mixed with house prices to create the conclusion that (a bit of) the North of England is the happiest place in the country, It raised some suspicions.
The ONS data was based on a simple question: “Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday? Where 0 is ‘not at all happy and 10 is ‘completely happy’”, and can be seen here in its thrilling spreadsheet glory. The combination made by Hamptons with house price-to-income ratios, led the Hamptons researchers to declare areas of the North of England the happiest places in the country. The guardian has singled out one of the best-scoring areas, Allerdale in Cumbria, for special attention: “Though boasting more than its fair share of beaches, lakes and mountains, it is not necessarily the most obvious utopia, containing towns such as Maryport and Workington, home to some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Britain”.
The linking of house prices by an estate agents as an indicator of social wellbeing and should surely be met with a degree of skepticism right out of the gates: surely an estate agent is the last person you’d trust to give you an accurate picture of how pleasant a place is to live? The ONS data is relatively independent of this kind of obvious bias. But of course, happiness is not an easily quantifiable thing. As Will Davies, one of a growing number of critical voices on Happiness economics, has argued, ‘By reducing the relationship between mind and world to a quantitative ratio, wellbeing metrics offers a simple choice of how to pursue progress: do you seek to change the world or to change the mind? The philosophical relationship between critical subjectivity and objective circumstances comes to appear like a set of scales to be balanced, in which the weight on either side can be adjusted’. As a feeling, how we personally define ‘happiness’ isn’t independent of a web of other messy stuff in which we’re entangled; income, work, and relationships all play a factor but, then, so do all the other feelings we have.
This is because feelings have a history. The times, places and actions we associate with happiness all shape how we think about it, and how likely we are to experience or recognise it again. How the serf of the 14th century felt at the end of harvest was probably very different to how a factory worker coming off shift in the 1890s felt; though this is not to say that the two would not use the same word for both emotions, they had a very different sense of how time was linked to feeling. The cultural philosopher Lauren Berlant connects feelings and history as part of the process of making intuition. What we think of as near-instinctual intuitive reaction is shaped by our historical experience of feelings in the past and the ways our social routines have been destroyed and reshaped both in our personal and social histories.
The problem is that British social context and history are hardly plain sailing with the spirit of justice guiding us. British social history is marked by massive class and gender inequalities, and not a small smattering of racism and imperialism. While it’s not conclusive, putting the Hamptons Map next to a ‘Map of Whiteness’ based on other ONS data reveals that many of the highest-scoring areas for Happiness, including Allerdale (the English border region on the Irish sea) are also some of the whitest.
When the comedian John Cleese announced he was moving to Bath in 2011, because London was no longer an ‘English’ City, he encapsulated a sensibility that associates urban ‘cosmopolitanism’ with social decline, and parochial white homogeneity with stability and continuity. Media representations of black and minority ethnic groups and the social anxieties created about urban decay are inextricably linked in the way European and North American culture thinks about cities. In the US and UK, ’The Urban Market’ is known as a byword in media marketing for the black demographic. The association of rural idylls, whiteness, and happiness is a long standing connection in mass media; and this association has an impact on how we feel about the places we live. If cities are constantly depicted as an urban frontier full of dark and dangerous risks, white people will inevitably feel anxious about them and the social groups connected to them.
The idea of local happiness is already weighted to exclude particular kinds of people from the narrative. Reflecting on her own experiences as a queer scholar of colour in white-dominated academia, Sara Ahmed connects this process of exclusion to the production of ‘happy atmospheres’ threatened by emotional outsiders, feelings of conviviality threatened by critical voices or unwelcome faces: when we see happiness, Ahmed argues, we also have to look at the exclusions that happiness may be predicated on. Allerdale may well be happier because of clean streams, low crime, and cheap houses. However when we look at statistical data on happiness, we can’t just think about the classic problems of who the data excludes and what it hasn’t measured. We also need to question the exclusions that went into producing the particular statistic in the first place, the thing it cannot measure, because the statistic is a social relation.