Since 2012 Collective Encounters has worked with St. Helens Arts Service and other partners to deliver Other Ways of Telling: a programme of participatory workshops and performances with people accessing or at risk of accessing adult health and social care services. In 2014, St.Helens Public Health, Collective Encounters and St.Helens Arts Service came together to work on a year long project offering theatre for social change workshops, outreach workshops in support settings for adults and an artists residency in St.Helens Libraries. The focus for this programme was on mental health, which led to us exploring the perceptions of happiness of library users, as we felt this more appropriate than to directly ask people about their experiences of ill mental health.

We were most interested to find out what local people thought about their own happiness and well being, and developed the idea of a government ‘Department of Happiness’, dispatching a ‘Happiness Inspector’ to St.Helens. Aidan Jolly, the lead artist on Other Ways of Telling, delivered the work and undertook the residency in the thirteen libraries of St.Helens, and by way of comparison, two cafe’s, a golf club and a rugby club.

We wanted to consider how we might measure people’s well being, compared to the measures that the government use to understand this. As they use Gross National Product to measure how much is produced and consumed, information about happiness and well being is not always collected.

As Robert Kennedy once said, “Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. 

[…] Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

We wanted to find out what people see as being important to their own happiness and see if that offered a different way of looking at what makes life worthwhile, which isn’t necessarily linked to consumption.

With this in mind we started to look at the Happy Planet Index, which was developed in 2006 by the New Economics Foundation to compare ecological footprint data with life expectancy and satisfaction. It measures the efficiency with which precious natural resources are used to give people long and happy lives, in a sustainable environment.

We used the Index as a basis to form our questions which were designed to elicit subjective responses from participants with regard to how important certain aspects of their lives were in relation to their well being.

Aidan, the ‘Inspector’ asked a series of twenty questions to each respondent, entering the resulting data into a specially written interactive spreadsheet. The questions ranged through the relative importance of having food, warmth and shelter, to the desirability or otherwise of specific consumer items, to how important it is to be able to imagine a better world.

The results were recorded numerically from 1 – 20 for each respondent, and then averaged for each question in each library. The spreadsheet enabled an easy and provocative way of comparing results between library districts, in a manner, which, nevertheless raised interesting issues, particularly around assumptions about certain aspects of people’s attitudes to wealth, the nature of statistical studies in general, and the difference between utility and happiness.

The results were very interesting. Most people distinguished between usefulness and happiness; most people appeared to see having just enough money as grounds for contentment, quite a few argued that if they won the lottery they would give it away; and most people cared deeply about events and issues not immediately connected with them, such as the war in Syria. Most interestingly of all was that people naturally appeared to take many things in their lives for granted until prompted to think about them by the questions we asked.

The results for each location were mapped onto musical intervals, thus generating pieces of music that reflect the shifting overall mood of each locality. All thirteen sections of music generated were then combined into one piece.

It is important to highlight that this was an artistic project, and so the accuracy of the statistical data collected could be seen as inaccurate from a research perspective. For example, our collection methodology didn’t include recording details of class, race, gender, age, disability or employment status, and our sample size was limited to the seventeen locations we visited. This could have had a biased impact on our results. Whether this be the case or not, our intention was always to process our results in a way that would produce the best musical results, and interesting creative outcome.

To learn more about the Happiness Residency, take a look at the videos below.

Video 1 explains a bit more about the project.

Video 2 highlights some key results.

Video 3 presents the results of the project in question and graph format.

To find out more about measures of happiness you can look here