Edinburgh residents ‘happier than rest of UK’

Edinburgh folk Katie Burton and Faye Buckingham appear to be happy despite the bad weather. Picture: Scott Taylor

Edinburgh folk Katie Burton and Faye Buckingham appear to be happy despite the bad weather. Picture: Scott Taylor

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It’s been an up and down year for the Capital, with economic recovery competing against sporting misery.

The trams are finally running, long-awaited developments at Waverley, Haymarket and the St James Quarter are set to pour hundreds of millions of pounds into city coffers, and joblessness is plummeting.

But for the first time in history, both of Edinburgh’s football teams have been relegated from the top flight, several council scandals have damaged trust in the powers that be, and it has rained every day of June so far.

For Edinburgh residents, though, the glass is more than half full. According to a new report compiled by council stattos, people in the Capital are happier than their counterparts in any other UK city – and they have 87 pieces of data to prove it.

If you believe the numbers, we are healthier, wealthier and better educated than most of those unlucky enough to live anywhere else.

The figures are contained in a 40-page booklet, Edinburgh By Numbers, which draws on statistics from a huge range of sources, including the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Scottish Government.

Edinburgh topped a list of the ten biggest cities in the UK ranked in terms of life satisfaction, with residents giving an average rating of eight out of ten. The findings were backed by the city’s own Edinburgh People Survey 2013, which found that 63 per cent were “very satisfied” with the Capital as a place to live, only slightly down on last year’s score of 66 per cent.

The city’s economic fortunes are on the up: the percentage of people on the dole is edging downwards, and major developments put on hold by the recession are finally on their way. Edinburgh’s streets feel safer than ever, with half as many recorded crimes as ten years ago, and continuing to drop.

“Safeguarding people’s wellbeing is a priority,” says community safety convener Councillor Cammy Day. “And thanks to a lot of hard work, antisocial behaviour complaints have dropped by 43 per cent in four years, while 91 per cent of residents have told us that they feel safe after dark in Edinburgh.”

And with the arrival of the trams, the city can put the six-year nightmare of their construction behind it. “In transport terms, this is a momentous time for Edinburgh,” says transport convener Councillor Lesley Hinds. “Just this week we have witnessed a new dawn for public transport in the Capital with the start of passenger services on Edinburgh Trams.

“The city has gone through a very difficult journey to get to this point and we’d never want to detract from that for an instant. However, the carnival atmosphere on those first few trams and the thousands and thousands of tram trips already made by residents and visitors seem to indicate that there’s a growing positivity in the air and a new sense of looking forward.”

So what is it that we’re so happy about? The experts all agree that when it comes to wellbeing, the pound in your pocket actually matters least. While having a good job with a decent wage is a key factor, how much you earn has a diminishing impact on how happy you are, and spending long hours on the job is certain to dent your satisfaction with your own life.

“It’s important to remember, because a lot of the things we do in society to try and increase economic growth sometimes penalise those thing,” says Saamah Abdallah, head of the wellbeing unit at think-tank the New Economics Foundation. “Yes, people need good jobs and a basic income, but we need to not be obsessed with that and lose sight of other 
factors.”

Instead, what gets Edinburgh residents grinning are things that make city living pleasant and comfortable. The Capital does well on two key factors: having safe streets and access to green space. “There have been a whole set of experiments where sensors that measure heart-rates and hormone levels are tied to students. Some are put in a forest and some in a city, and being in a natural place clearly reduces stress,” Mr Abdallah says.

The other key factor in cities is commuting, an area where traffic-clogged Edinburgh doesn’t do quite as well. “There are studies that show people are least happy when commuting,” says Mr Abdallah.

Edinburgh has already fared well in Oxfam Scotland’s Humankind Index, which, as well as offering an alternative to GDP, tots up economic activity while capturing what that means for quality of life for ordinary people.

Unlike the ONS, Oxfam’s figures bring together all the underlying issues, rather than just taking a snapshot of how happy people are at a given time.

The Capital ranks top of Scotland’s cities, however in the league table of local authorities, it trails behind seven other, more rural areas, where access to green space is better, housing is cheaper, and communities are so close-knit that everyone is a familiar face.

According to Oxfam head Jamie Livingstone, city chiefs should listen more carefully if they want to keep putting smiles on faces.

He says: “Whether it be Edinburgh council or the Scottish Government, understanding the factors that lead to collective prosperity is crucial if we are to tackle the significant inequalities that we face.” 

ANALYSIS

By Neil Thin, Senior lecturer in social and political sciences at Edinburgh University

THE statistics will vary depending on which part of Edinburgh you look at. You’ve got south Edinburgh and parts of west Edinburgh with astonishingly good access to beautiful parks and facilities, and other parts with a long history of deprivation, and remaining quite severely deprived despite the best efforts of the council.

Commuting is a major indicator of self-reported happiness, and what results you get will also depend quite heavily on what area you draw your statistics from. Long commutes are far worse for personal happiness than people would guess. Parts of Edinburgh are particularly fortunate in terms of being able to walk or cycle to work, but other parts have to use public transport or try their luck with driving. It’s certainly not a particularly driveable city.

For those that follow football, the depressing factor of Edinburgh’s football teams being relegated will make people miserable for a few days, but nothing more serious than that – and the excitement of competing with Rangers for the one place in the premiership will make up for it.

You can’t just explain a city’s happiness because it’s got great everything. That’s the hardware – the transport, the jobs, the security, but the hardware can’t explain everything. At the end of the day, happiness is much more down to individual disposition and culture.

It’s hard to point to evidence, but there’s a very plausible argument that cultural factors are at least as much responsible for Edinburgh’s happiness. You could have two places with all the same amenities and exactly identical climates, but very different happiness statistics. You need to balance the statistics with qualitative analysis, and most people would describe Edinburgh as a city that they feel incredibly privileged to be in. You can tease out why people appreciate a city much better from conversations and stories than you can from one-off survey questions.