How Happy Are You?

24/10/2013 10:56 BST | Updated 27/12/2013 10:50 GMT

The latest statistics to emerge from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that people in Northern Ireland are happier than those in any other part of the UK.

It is worth remembering that only a generation ago this was a place that was popularly regarded as the most dangerous place in the UK. As usual, the stereotype was incorrect as though 'The Troubles' added to a sense of fear - always an objective of terrorism - statistically it was one the safest parts of the UK (and least likely for the occurrence of 'ordinary' crime).

According to the data gathered by the ONS, and which set out to measure 'life satisfaction', whether feelings about what people do in life are worthwhile, happiness and anxiety.

It should be stressed that there are two potential problems with this survey.

Firstly asking people about how happy they feel is always going to be fraught with the danger that they can't tell you precisely apart from perhaps being happier or less happy than the last time they considered.

Happiness or satisfaction is an emotional response to the things we experience and, as we all know, can be inconsistent.

The questions used by ONS are not exactly 'deep':

1. Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?

2. Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

3. Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?

4. Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?

Each of these was rated on a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is 'not at all' and 10 is 'completely'.

The other issue is that though there were 165,000 responses to the survey, this represents a minute faction of the whole population; around 0.3% of one per cent.

The survey, which was carried out between April 2012 and March 2103 is the first time that such an approach has been taken.

As well as showing that a third of people in Northern Ireland rated their life satisfaction as being nine out of ten, the data demonstrated that England was lowest in this category. Intriguingly Scotland was the least anxious place in the UK.

Additionally, as the ONS explain, among the English regions the South West and the South East had 'some of the highest levels of average life satisfaction and worthwhile ratings in 2012/13.

For anyone who has holidayed in the area (or maybe watched the ITV series Doc Martin), it is probably no surprise that the South West also had proportionately more people than any other region rating life satisfaction, worthwhile and happiness as 9 or 10 out of 10.

Of course, even I am falling into the trap of looking for simple explanations for the data; because the South West is rural and has some stunning scenery it makes people more satisfied.

However, anyone who does the morning commute in the major cities, especially London, must be envious of those whose only delay may be a herd of cows!

It might reasonably be assumed that the majority of us want more happiness and satisfaction and less anxiety.

The difficulty is in knowing what will produce such emotions.

It is significant that the ONS acknowledge that, as they state, 'The relationship between personal well-being and local circumstances is complex,' and that the reasons why each the data for each area exhibits differences is not fully understood.

ONS state their intention to carry out further analysis and to publish the 'different aspects' of where we live and how it contributes to personal well-being.

One assumes that 'quality of life' will be a crucial aspect of what makes people happy. We know that we like to be close to family and friends and that personal wealth is less important than we imagine.

However, beyond these generalisations whether we will discover anything truly incredible is questionable.

Some argue that we can never fully understand what motivates people and creates the inner sense of fulfilment we are believed to crave; though many have attempted to research this.

In the meantime the ONS data gives us something to reflect on and makes me wonder whether the data recently published data will cause a shift in population.

I suspect not.