The Happiness Project – Brexit, Pursued by Despair


We’ve made a great deal of headway with the Happiness Project over the last few months. Using a combination of foundational qualitative work, academic frameworks, cultural insight and new quantitative research, we’ve now developed a rigorous framework for measuring the different elements that make up the sum total of human wellbeing.

As a taster, here’s a brief insight into how some of those things influenced voting behaviour in last year’s EU referendum…

Much generalisation has been written about peoples’ motivations to vote Leave. Like:

  • Youngsters all voted Remain and it was the coffin dodgers wot stole their future…
  • It was the provinces vs the cities, the rich vs the poor, the somewheres vs the everywheres…
  • It was the less educated (note – this one’s a particular red herring; it’s much more a generational thing, simply because of the push to get more young people into higher education over several decades of government policy)…
  • And so on.

All of these things are ‘true’, in the sense that we know such correlations exist.

But there are many ways to skin a cat. At Culturise we prefer to look at deeper patterns first, and then see what we can learn about behaviours from that. It’s too easy to say Leavers are X, and Remainers are Y. It’s all much more complicated…

The Happiness Project

In the spirit of sharing interesting and timely things, The Culturise Collaboration has been working on a series of insights and analyses around measuring happiness and applying this to brands and businesses. We call this initiative, with customary transparency and attention to detail, The Happiness Project.

One input is from Culturise collaborators house51, who – along with City University – built a survey to profile the UK population on a range of salient psychological measures. This involved over 2,000 interviews conducted by Populus Data Solutions. The aim was to take some important academic thinking ‘out of the lab’ and applied in an integrated way to a real world nationally representative sample, covering a wide range of territory.

We’ll be releasing a White Paper on this and all the other Happiness Project inputs, outputs and models over the coming weeks. Meanwhile, here’s a brief taster, with a major hat-tip to Ian Murray at House51 who’s done loads of other work on this.

So here’s our taster. Two of the many relevant multivariate factors we looked at are:

  • Subjective Quality of Life – how you feel about your income, family, health, lifestyle generally; how you perceive your circumstances relative to others, whether you feel you’re doing something valuable and useful in your life, etc. (Note – this doesn’t equate to ‘wealth’. It’s all relative.)
  • Locus of Control – internal or external; and especially whether you feel you have agency over your destiny, control over your life; the extent to which you feel it’s shaped by outside forces you can’t influence, and so on.

And here’s a heatmap of how these two factors interrelate, with the likelihood of voting Leave as the ‘heat’…

Just have a good look at that for a moment.

What do we see?

  • In the bottom left, we see people who perceive themselves with no agency, no power, no purpose, poor subjective quality of life, and little control over their destiny. They’re unhappy, and they are much more likely to vote Leave. (I suspect if we did this same exercise in the US, they’d be bigly more likely to vote Trump).
  • In the top right, we see people with plenty of all those good things. They’re happy with their lives and in their own skins – and they’re much more likely to vote Remain.

And we see everything in between. More on that in future posts. (The model is evenly balanced BTW – from 22% to 27% of people in each quadrant; there’s only a small intercorrelation between these factors, which is in itself interesting.)

Before we start on the obligatory ‘yes, but I voted X because of [insert post-rationalisation here]’, of course there are many other factors in play. We’ll be talking about a whole variety of drivers – cultural identity and values, social factors, and eudaimonic wellbeing (your innate sense of purpose and fulfillment) in due course. And we’ll see how they interrelate and help build a powerful universal model of happiness and wellbeing. Stand by for all that.

And BTW: to be clear, we’re not saying all Leavers are dissatisfied with their lives and lack agency.

What we are saying is that unhappy people who feel their destiny is out of their hands are much more likely to vote Leave, and vice versa.

So let’s recognise that one really important have/have not divide exposed by all this – in the UK and elsewhere in the world – is between the happy and the unhappy, the purposeful and the unfulfilled. The absolute numbers may change, but the pattern of this map doesn’t vary one bit according to whether you’re a pensioner or a student, a northerner or a southerner, a doctor or a farmhand.

For example, you might think there’s some sort of obvious correlation with age, given the greater propensity of the over 65s to vote Leave. Like, duh – all the pensioners are in the bottom left, right?

Wrong! The over 65s are, if anything, a little more concentrated in the other quadrants. Many other things are going on with the age dynamic, for example around ‘traditional cultural values’. This is what makes it all so interesting!

So in sum, in general terms, whether you’re young or old, richer or poorer, if you’re in the bottom left quadrant you’re considerably more likely to vote Leave compared with your demographically identical cohort in the top right quadrant.

This pattern arises because these are some of the innate psychological factors underpinning the feeling of human wellbeing – and we now see them playing out through the medium of politics.

Knowing what’s likely ahead of us over the next few years, can we be entirely confident that as a result we’ll see the powerless take control of their lives, the dissatisfied become happy, the ignored become suddenly feted, or the purposeless achieve fulfilment?

Perhaps this is why the so-called ‘metropolitan elites’ have struggled to empathise and explain some of this. Rationally speaking, what’s any of this got to do with the EU?

But if you were in that bottom left quadrant, how would you vote?

Perhaps you’d vote to ‘take back control’, or to ‘make America great again’, however nebulous and ill-defined all that may be.

Perhaps you’d vote for a dream of a happier life.

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Thanks for reading. More all on this in due course.

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Andy Dexter