04 Jun

I’m only happy when it rains

Posted By polity_admin_user

Sociologists have long studied community life, what constitutes ‘community’ and what fate befell the (apparently) strong communities of the past in the maelstrom of industrialization, capitalism and modernity. There has been a widespread assumption that living in a strong community – who’d want a weak one? – is somehow ‘a good thing’, even though sociological research and theorizing has provided a more balanced account. Strong communities can bind people together, providing supportive networks, but they can also stifle individuality and suppress innovation. The loosely connected lives of urban dwellers may be perceived as lonely and atomized but, for many, moving into a city is exciting, liberating and replete with new opportunities. Yet despite this dose of realism, the concept of community remains persistently and intimately connected to sustaining human happiness. Are the ‘happiest’ places then the strongest ‘communities’?         

UK property website Rightmove.com published its annual survey last week, showing that, for the second consecutive year, Harrogate in North Yorkshire was ‘the happiest place to live’ whilst various places in London came in the bottom ten. Harrogate, Stockport, Taunton, Inverness and Hull were in the top ten happiest places but East London, West London, North London and South-East London all came in the bottom ten. All those stereotypes and clichés are true! Northerners talk more to each other, have a stronger sense of community and are generally happier than their southern (at least London-based) fellow citizens. Southerners are less neighbourly but also less concerned about losing the value in their properties though they routinely bemoan the lack of safety in their areas. People stay put in the south for well-paid work and high property prices whilst the north is enjoyed by those who like the less pressurized lifestyle, friendlier environment and can cope with lower average incomes and house prices. It’s Coronation Street vs. Eastenders writ large.

[Rightmove 2014: http://www.rightmove.co.uk/news/happy-at-home/

Rightmove 2013: http://www.rightmove.co.uk/news/files/2013/03/Rightmove-Happy-At-Home-Index-2013.pdf

However, this survey is based on the subjective perceptions of just under 48,000 people who chose to participate and though it is an interesting snapshot of how people view their lives it is very property-focused (‘are you happy with your home décor?’, for instance), as you might expect. Yet even the government is concerned about how happy people are. In 2010, newly elected Prime Minister David Cameron announced a new focus on how government can help to increase national happiness and ‘well-being’ with a research programme to be run by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) known as Measuring National Well-being (MNW). Widely reported as a misguided attempt to engineer happiness, the programme is actually much more than that. The ONS has been trying to devise a set of agreed statistics capable of measuring national well-being using both objective (such as crime rates and levels of employment and unemployment) and subjective measures (including perceived health status and whether people feel safe walking around after dark).

The MNW breaks down the concept of well-being into ten ‘domains’: personal well-being, relationships, health, what we do (work and leisure), where we live (crime rates and sense of community), personal finance, economy, education and skills, governance (trust in government and election turnout) and natural environment (access to green spaces, recycling rates, etc.).The surveys are then able to tell us, for example, that 77 per cent of people surveyed were ‘satisfied with their lives in the UK in 2012-13’ and that this is 1 per cent higher than in the previous year, that about 80 per cent again engaged with the arts, that the proportion who were satisfied with their income fell by more than 4 per cent, and that trust in government remains low at around 24 percent.

[ONS MNW report 2014: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171766_352740.pdf

Comparisons over time and across other EU countries are possible using the European Quality of Life surveys, Eurobarometer and Eurostat, whilst wider comparisons can make use of United Nations data. But what is a government to do with all this information? The critics have been merciless: ‘State happiness campaigns leave people feeling gloomier’ (Daily Telegraph 31 May 2014), ‘David Cameron, happiness and delusion’ (New Statesman 28 November 2010), ‘The happiness agenda makes for miserable policy’, (The Conversation 9 January 2014).

[Useful example here: http://theconversation.com/the-happiness-agenda-makes-for-miserable-policy-21858

In particular, measuring subjective happiness is seen as a distinctly woolly enterprise with no real policy relevance. If the MNW survey finds that those who belong to a faith group are happier than those who don’t, should the state push religious affiliation? If the north is generally happier than the south, should the government take Stockport or Hull as the ideal type for transforming London? 

The MNW project was intended to move beyond the simple and rather crude economic indicator of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and many social scientists, economists and environmentalists would support that. Hence the derision poured on Cameron’s ‘happiness’ project – which is clearly related to the apparently now defunct Big Society agenda – is probably undeserved. After all, what government is not interested in improving its citizens’ well-being? The main problem is that ‘well-being’ – like its stable mate, sustainable development – is ill-defined and open to varying interpretations based on competing values and interests. For instance, I quite like my own company and don’t see friendly (nosy?) neighbours as the way to my personal happiness. Similarly, although it sounds like common sense, encouraging more volunteering may just be a way of cutting the welfare budget and that would make public services less reliable. Trust in government is quite low but maybe that’s a good thing rather than a problem to be rectified as it keeps politicians on their toes. In short, like attitudes to the weather, what makes people ‘happy’ varies widely. Some people are only really happy when it rains.   

Chapter 6, Cities and Urban Life contains an extended discussion of the development of the sociology of urbanism and much else that will be relevant. Chapter 13, Poverty, Social Exclusion and Welfare (pp. 553-64) also covers the creation and development of the welfare state and shifting ideas of what the state should do for its citizens. Social networks are then discussed on pp. 853-62.

Reading 5 (Durkheim) in Sociology: Introductory Readings is an example of early sociological theories of the shift away from community-based solidarity. Readings 14 (Simmel) and 15 (Sennett) discuss urban life and the possibility of urban community and Reading 38 (Rheingold) brings community studies into the Internet age.

Philip W. Sutton