Is everybody happy? The economics of happiness in Northern Ireland


For some years now, Northern Ireland has come out on top of the UK's happiness league table with people here reporting higher degrees of happiness than people in England, Scotland and Wales. This year is no different with new figures published last week by the Office for National Statistics showing Northern Ireland to again be the happiest region in the UK.

In Northern Ireland, people ranked their happiness as 7.74 out of 10 on average when asked ‘how happy did you feel yesterday?’. This compares to 7.54 in England, 7.51 in Wales and 7.52 in Scotland. The differences are not huge, but they are there and they are consistent. The figures on life satisfaction tell a similar story. Those in Northern Ireland put their average life satisfaction at 7.91 out of 10, while Scotland and Wales have an average figure of 7.68 and England 7.70.

These assessments of our happiness and life satisfaction levels were born out of one of David Cameron’s flagship policies when he entered Downing Street back in 2010. This was the era when our economy was continuing to shrink and when the Tory Government were doing everything that they could to divert our attention away form our dismal economic performance. He commented that  ‘it’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB - general wellbeing’. He subsequently ordered the ONS to start gathering data capturing happiness and life satisfaction.

We’re some years down the line now though and while it is possible to imagine from these figures that the best move the unhappy Londoner can make is a move to Lisburn where everyone is happy, it’s time we stopped and reflected on what these results really tell us. What can knowing how happy a population is actually tell us about the wellbeing of that population or the quality of life which that population enjoys? And how do we come to understand or interpret the fact that Northern Ireland is the happiest place in the UK? Why are we relatively happier?

This finding is one that goes largely unexplained by experts, although three main explanations have been put forward: the first is that the regional differences are down to the way in which people in Northern Ireland respond to surveys that produce wellbeing data. Perhaps we interpret the question differently!

The second is that it could be a reflection of ongoing positive but fragile expectations that have flowed from the peace process.

The third is that Northern Ireland’s higher levels of social capital - that is the links, shared values and trust that enable individuals to live and work together - could be driving the difference.

Still, in terms of what can be said about the wellbeing of our population from the fact that we perceive ourselves to be relatively happy? I would argue, on its own, not a lot. Even a cursory glance at other indicators of wellbeing show the limits of happiness measures. In fact, on just about any other economic or social indicator of our wellbeing you tend to find Northern Ireland ranking poorly relative to the UK.

For instance, whilst we have been continuously hearing in recent months about how well the Northern Ireland labour market has been performing, it still is one of the poorest-performing labour markets of the UK. Recently published labour market statistics show that while the Northern Ireland employment rate has reached a record high, it’s still well below that of England, Scotland or Wales. Similarly, we have higher rates of deprivation and our disposable income is amongst the lowest of all UK regions.  

Also, these contradictory assessments of our wellbeing go beyond the economic. Assessments of our mental wellbeing tell a contradictory story. We may say that we’re the happiest people in the UK, but the reality appears to be quite different. We have a considerably higher prevalence of mental health problems, suicide, and self-harm.

We need not however abandon the measures of happiness, and in fact they might be quite useful if used to address our poor performance in other areas. Beyond averages there is a systematic relationship between unhappiness and poor material circumstances.

Those with the lowest incomes, those who are unemployed, those who are in precarious work, those who are in low paid jobs all tend to report low levels of happiness. This means that whilst we might be performing quite well on average, some people are very unhappy or dissatisfied with their life because of their economic circumstances.

To improve the happiness of large segments of our population we need to address our high rates of poverty and deprivation. We need to address the increasing scourge of precarious, poor quality work. We need to address our lagging economy. All in all, we need to challenge ourselves with not just being content with ourselves for being the happy poor, and take seriously the challenge of making the poor happy. 

This Blog was originally printed in The Belfast Telegraph on 23rd April 2019. See here: 

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Dr Lisa Wilson

Lisa Wilson is a Senior Economist at the Nevin Economic Research Institute and is based in the Belfast office. Her main research interests lie in the areas of labour markets, income distribution, poverty, public expenditure, living standards and well-being. 

Since taking up her position in the NERI Lisa has been among other things carrying out work concerned with job quality and its economic and social importance, the future of work, the gendered nature of employment, and housing and its impact for living standards in Northern Ireland.

Lisa is a native of Donegal, and a graduate of Ulster University and Queens University, Belfast. Lisa completed her PhD in Queen’s University, Belfast focusing on income inequality and well-being.

Contact: [email protected] or 00 44 28 9024 6214.