What can competition tell us about happiness?

How the residents of Bolton helped us to understand what makes us happy.

In the spring of 1938, the residents of Bolton were invited to take part in a competition by writing to an address at 85 Davenport Street. The Bolton Evening News advertised the competition on its front page, asking readers ‘what is happiness?’ and inviting them to submit their own definitions. The promised prizes were two guineas, one guinea and half a guinea. The paper received 228 entries.

85 Davenport Street was in fact home to the British social investigative organisation Mass Observation. At Sussex, Professors Ian Gazeley and Claire Langhamer have used the competition entries collected by Mass Observation to understand happiness and economic wellbeing in 1930s Britain. Their research showed how a self-selected group of Boltonians crafted stories that can be used to explore modern selfhood.

They found that the factors determining individual happiness were remarkably stable across age and gender. Economic security emerged as the dominant consideration, while personal pleasure played little part in producing happiness.

Mass Observation's pioneering methods created new opportunities for ordinary individuals to record their sense of self. The interwar period is a fascinating time to explore aspects of the individual. Mass-produced fiction and film provided fresh material and new perspectives were circulating in popular culture, inspiring a generation. This offered people the chance to forge new identities in response to the benefits – and anxieties – of modernity.

Ian Gazeley is an economic and social historian of modern Britain, with particular interests in the labour market, poverty and inequality, food consumption and nutrition. He is currently Principal Investigator on a £1.2-million ESRC-funded project Global Income Inequality, 1860-1960.

Claire Langhamer is a social and cultural historian and Professor of Modern British History. Her work looks at how ordinary people negotiated modernity in 20th-century Britain. Claire has featured on BBC2, BBC3 and Radio 4, and helped Masterchef host Gregg Wallace trace his family history in the BBC1 programme Who Do You Think You Are?

In many ways Mass Observation is an ‘archive of feeling’: it provides the intimate accounts of everyday emotion around which histories of love, hope, anger and despair, as well as of happiness, can be crafted.” Claire Langhamer
Professor of Modern British History

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