182 places could be happier than the “UK’s happiest place”

Published: 29th Oct 2019

In brief

Claim

Ribble Valley is the happiest place in the UK.

Conclusion

It had the highest average happiness rating, in an ONS survey of all UK local authorities in 2018/19. But because scores are expressed as a range between two numbers, 182 local authorities could actually be happier than Ribble Valley.

“Ribble Valley officially named UK's happiest place”

The Guardian, 23 October 2019

Last week the Guardian reported that Ribble Valley is the happiest place in the UK.

This comes from a survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) which asked people “overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?”

Respondents rated their happiness on a scale from 1 to 10 where 0 is “not at all” and 10 is “completely”. Ribble Valley’s average score of 8.30 was the highest of any local authority in the UK, for the year to March 2019.

A number of reasons have been suggested for why Ribble Valley reached the top spot—from its quiet lanes and transport links, to its burgeoning gastronomic reputation.

But there’s one other less-discussed possibility—uncertainties with the data.

The ONS says that ranking local authorities according to their average scores “may be misleading for various reasons”.

The main one is that because the number of people surveyed is quite small in some areas, the ONS isn’t entirely confident that the happiness level calculated completely reflects the actual happiness level of people in those areas. So, for each local authority, the ONS provides a lower and upper confidence interval—which express what range the happiness level could fall within.

So, for example, while the average score in Ribble Valley was 8.30, it had one of the lowest sample sizes—60 people—and the ONS thinks its true happiness score could be anywhere between 7.90 and 8.69.

That’s quite a wide margin of error, so if Ribble Valley’s happiness score was actually closer to the lower estimate of 7.90 then its ranking might change dramatically. 182 other local authorities have an upper confidence interval which is above 7.90. So almost half of all the UK’s local authorities could actually be happier than Ribble Valley.

In 2015/16 the area ranked 362 out of 389 local authorities on the measure. The volatility of the score over time perhaps further illustrates the wide margin of error associated with small sample sizes, rather than any genuine dramatic improvement in fortunes for the locals. Or perhaps it has genuinely been a brilliant few years for the denizens of Ribble Valley.

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