THE BLOG

What Makes a Happy Town?

05/08/2016 16:19 | Updated 05 August 2016

I live in the happiest town in the UK. Harrogate, with its population of just under seventy-six thousand, is a quaint Victorian spa town nestled snuggly in the North Yorkshire countryside, famous for its tea rooms, gardens and wide open spaces. This bastion of Englishness is regularly voted the happiest town in the country in an annual survey carried out by Rightmove, the online property site.

Harrogate people are justifiably proud of their happiness ranking; in July we celebrated with 'Happygate', a free music and arts event in the beautiful surroundings of the towns Valley Gardens.

Places don't necessarily make us happy, in fact, our sense of belonging is the most important factor when it comes to wellbeing. People are more likely to report higher levels of happiness if they have strong social networks such as close friends and family who can support them emotionally.

Even people who are successful and financially stable report low levels of happiness if these social support mechanisms aren't in place. It would appear that striving for intimacy makes people happy, striving for power and recognition doesn't.

But good, strong relationships aren't necessarily indicative of happy places, just happy people. Harrogate is an affluent town with house prices above the national average, suggesting that wealth can increase levels of happiness. The truth, however, might be more nuanced than this.

Psychologists have long since understood that money is a poor indicator of happiness. Average salaries are actually lower in Harrogate than those in neighbouring Leeds, York and Bradford, perhaps because in Harrogate service industries that traditionally pay lower wages dominate. Harrogate's higher earners tend to commute to neighbouring Leeds and York where the salaries are higher.

Higher salaries, therefore, might not play a role in Harrogate's happiness, even if affluence does. Studies have found that people are prepared to accept lower wages and pay more to buy a house in towns and cities with better amenities while they are more likely to demand higher wages in areas were housing is cheaper and have fewer and lower quality amenities, higher crime rates and more environmental pollution.

Lower crime rates impact personal expenditure. Motor vehicle and household insurance premiums are significantly lower in Harrogate than in other parts of Yorkshire. It might be expensive to purchase a house in the town but high house prices can be partly off-set by the lower cost of living.

Good amenities do play a major role in making towns happy. Harrogate does very well in this respect. Our schools are rated as either 'good' or 'outstanding' and the hospital is equally highly rated. The two-hundred acres of parkland, known as 'The Stray', attracts picnickers, Saturday morning footballers and parkrunners while the seventeen acre English Heritage grade II listed Valley Gardens is a great space for young families.

Access to green open spaces has consistently been linked with higher rates of well-being, as well as a number of other factors ranging from reduced levels of childhood obesity and higher academic achievement.

Politically, Harrogate residents are right of centre, having returned a Conservative MP, Andrew Jones, in the past two elections. In the 2016 referendum on UK membership of the European Union, fifty-one percent voted to remain (one of only three areas in Yorkshire to do so, the others being neighbouring Leeds and York). This most likely represents the middle-class affluence of the town and the relative protection from the economic ups and downs of the past few years.

Harrogate people are also some of the healthiest in the UK, with average life expectancy at 81 years. This is higher than neighbouring Leeds, Bradford and York and even one year higher than Denmark, the happiest country in the world according to the 2016 World Happiness Report. This, no doubt, also reflects the towns affluence with surveys consistently discovering a strong correlation between wealth and longevity.

Money might help us to live longer but there is little to suggest that it makes us happier. There is certainly more to living in Denmark than longevity; open spaces, good healthcare and education all contribute to a longer life. It's much more likely that factors contributing to wellbeing also increase life expectancy. Many of these things (such as private healthcare, gym memberships and so on) can indeed be bought but other factors that contribute to happiness such as green spaces and high quality amenities remain part of the public infrastructure.

Many factors make for a happy town. It's no coincidence that one of the happiest towns in the UK is also one of the most affluent and I think we'd be kidding ourselves to suggest that it was. Nevertheless, the reciprocal nature of these factors creates an almost self-sustaining mechanism whereby they feed off each other, increasing well-being and positively contributing to both the local economy and a general feeling of contentment.

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