Do Three Scottish Islands Hold the Key to Happiness?
The Outer Hebrides is the happiest part of the UK, according to the latest wellbeing analysis released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The Western Isles, or Na h-Eileanan an Iar in Gaelic – also known as the Outer Hebrides – are a 130-mile-long string of islands lying off the northwest coast of Scotland. There are 119 islands in total, of which the five main inhabited islands are Lewis and Harris (two parts of a single island, although often described as if they are separate islands), North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra. The middle three (often referred to simply as ‘the Uists') are connected by road-bearing causeways.
The data reveals people living on the islands and in certain districts of Northern Ireland ranked their happiness higher than any other part of the country, while people in London reported having the most anxiety.
The findings – taken from a nationwide survey on wellbeing that has been carried out annually since 2011 – analysed happiness, life satisfaction, sense of worth and anxiety levels across UK regions.
The survey identified 10 aspects of life that people said mattered to their psychological health, including personal well-being, our relationships, our health, the economy and the environment.
Overall, people's life satisfaction was shown to have improved, but there were no changes in happiness, anxiety and feeling that what they do in life is worthwhile, all areas that have previously seen improvements each year. An increase in life satisfaction was expected over the past year, given the improvements seen in the economy and record high employment during that period.
However, it was surprising that there was no change over the same time in people's happiness, anxiety and feeling that what they do in life is worthwhile. This is the first time year-on-year improvements have not been seen in these particular measures since data collection began in 2011.
So, what makes the Outer Hebrides so special? It has been found that people are happier in the moment in natural environments, and all natural environments are happier than cities. But while natural landscapes can make us happier, everyone has experienced that they aren't always as beautiful as they are on those long hot summer days. When that scenery is hidden by rain, the winter days are long and dark, and the wind can reach 100 miles per hour, what else keeps people in the Outer Hebrides happy?
There's evidence that being near the water, or what is called ‘blue space', can potentially make us happier – and the sea is never far away in the Outer Hebrides. On the west coast of the Isle of Harris, the water is every shade from deep navy to bright turquoise. In North and South Uist, it can feel as if it is following you as sea lochs stretch their fingers inland. And whether on a leisure cruise or a ferry trip to merely access the islands, being out on the water itself is, of course, a common activity.
For a lot of residents, it's such a family-orientated, community based place to live and to work. People enjoy nipping to the shop and having a chat with everybody that's there, and when you do communal activities, it's a good laugh. Every community needs social hubs. There's quite a few in the islands, and every community in the Western Isles will have their own. When it comes to our sense of well-being, research confirms the importance of these kinds of social ties. "A sense of community belonging has the largest impact in explaining inter-community differences in average life satisfaction," said economist John F Helliwell, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia. His research in Canada has found that smaller communities have, on average, a higher sense of community belonging, higher levels of trust in neighbours and more time spent with family and friends.
For people used to city life, the much more relaxed pace of life might take some getting used to. Religion still plays a prominent part in public and private life, especially in the Protestant north, where shops and pubs close their doors on Sunday and some accommodation providers prefer guests not to arrive or depart on the Sabbath. The Roman Catholic south is a little more relaxed about these things.
Rugged and windswept, these islands are among the most isolated and mysterious places in the U.K. The scenery is beautiful. The landscape is rocky and mountainous, but also lush and verdant - due in no small part to the large amounts of rain which tend to fall. It is easy to find a quiet peaceful spot and perhaps watch the thousands of puffins and guillemots dive into clear waters.
The spectacular beachfront scenery is so breathtaking, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in the Caribbean. Right up until that first blast of cold Scottish air! Depending on the weather, a trip to the islands can feel like a tropical getaway or a blustery, rain-drenched holiday where this much-touted phrase makes sense: "There's no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing."
Is it time to pack in your job and become a shepherd and spend your days just chilling out with your flock? Admit it, you're pretty tempted, aren't you?