Glum Research

According to reports of new resesarch on the Australian Unity Wellbeing survey, the federal electorate of Grayndler* is the unhappiest, while Wide Bay is the happiest. While others have read this as evidence that money can’t buy you happiness, I worry that it tells us that self-reported happiness isn’t a very good indicator of wellbeing. After all, if people are maximising their happiness, they should be moving out of glum areas. But according to the ABS, Sydney ain’t shrinking. Between 1998 and 2003, 46,000 people moved to the Sydney Statistical District.

Update, 14/2: Thanks to David, I’ve read the report (PDF). So far as I can see, none of the differences are statistically significant. The sample sizes in individual electorates is around 100 (see PDF page 23). Stata tells me that for a difference of 69.4% (Grayndler) and 78.6% (Wide Bay) to be statistically significant at the 10% level, I would need a sample of 526 people in each electorate. So as a social scientist, the right way to read this research is "there are no significant happiness differences across federal electorates". Journalists who report it in any other way are misleading their readers.

* An earlier version of this post incorrectly listed the electorate of Sydney as the unhappiest, instead of Grayndler. Teach me to trust newspaper reports of research.

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12 Responses to Glum Research

  1. Sacha Blumen says:

    The enrolment in the federal electorate of Sydney is growing very quickly compared to other NSW electorates – a quick search of the AEC’s web-site shows the following enrolments figures for the seat, together with average enrolments for all NSW seats:

    2 January, 2003: 86,888 (av. 84,445)
    5 January, 2004: 87,961 (av. 84,898)
    31 December, 2004: 96,078 (av. 87,015)
    31 December, 2005: 96,437 (av. 86,249)

    I imagine that a clean-up of the electoral rolls must have happened in 2005, explaining the drop in average enrolment.

  2. Sacha Blumen says:

    Just a little thing Andrew – people can only move to maximise their “happiness” if they’re able to move – I’m guessing that there are “barriers” to people potentially moving to maximise their happiness eg local support/familiarity networks, lack of funds to move, cheap housing?

  3. Andrew Leigh says:

    Sacha, the average person may be constrained, but we’d still expect the marginal person to be taking happiness into account in their locational decisions.

  4. Sacha Blumen says:

    Ah yes!

  5. Geoff R says:

    High levels of support for One Nation and its predecessors in Wide Bay, identified as the happiest electorate, suggest all is not as it seems.

  6. Don says:

    “I worry that it tells us that self-reported happiness isn’t a very good indicator of wellbeing”

    If this is the survey I think it is the researchers measure wellbeing with an instrument like this:

    1. ‘Thinking about your own life and personal circumstances, how satisfied are you with your
    life as a whole?’
    (Personal domains)
    ‘How satisfied are you with……..?’
    2. Your standard of living?
    3. Your health?
    4. What you achieve in life?
    5. Your personal relationships?
    6. How safe you feel?
    7. Feeling part of your community?
    8. Your future security?
    9. Your own happiness?

  7. David says:

    I agree. I’ve written about some big problems with how these results are being interpreted:

  8. Sacha Blumen says:

    Do journos ever correctly present this sort of thing?

  9. Fiona says:

    Sacha – no. Journalists would have been provided with a press release which details the findings, but not the methodology. At least that’s what usually happens. It’s akin to ‘science by press release’.

    Also, journalists are rarely statisticians and wouldn’t have time to interpret the data anyway.

    I haven’t read the full report but was this research underwritten by an insurance company? From International Wellbeing Group page –

    “The origin of this project occurred early in 2001 when a contract was signed between Australian Unity, a financial services and healthcare company based in Melbourne, and the Australian Center on Quality of Life at Deakin University.”

    Or perhaps I’m just cynical because I’m a Grayndler resident 😉

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  11. Sacha Blumen says:

    Adele Horin referred to this research in an article in this weekend’s SMH without discussing the limitations in the methodology:

    I usually enjoy Adele’s pieces so this is a bit disappointing. Have to say as well that as one of her “creative class” people, I don’t think life is tough at all. But I live in Elizabeth Bay in the federal electorate of Sydney, not in Grayndler, so maybe therein lies the difference.

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