Census of the heart: Do Irish people feel happy?

As forms were being dropped off and collected from households all over Ireland, a census of a different kind was circulating on social media – a Census of the Heart

Last April 26th, Ireland’s regular national census took place, as it does every five years. The first results from it came out recently, examining population figures. At the same time as forms were being dropped off and collected from households all over Ireland, a census of a different kind was circulating on social media.

Census of the Heart ran online for four weeks from April 23rd, using the Survey Monkey tool. It came out of an idea from Trailblazery duo Kathy Scott and Mari Kennedy. "We had talked about it back in 2011 and then started talking about it again just before Christmas," Scott says.

At that time, Kennedy’s father Paddy was dying. “He was in Vincent’s,” Kennedy says. “I remember coming home from hospital and the census guy knocking on the door with the form, and closing the door and looking at the questions and thinking: ‘Why is nobody asking me how I am’?”

“I was feeling heartbroken and trying to make sense of the world; my father was dying and my house was in negative equity, and the census wanted to know how many rooms did I have and did I have wifi. They are really important questions and help plan for the future of our society, but where is the human being in this?”


This was the genesis of the idea which resulted in Census of the Heart. The data that Trailblazery wanted to collect was of a kind that is traditionally considered to be unscientific: information about feelings and emotions, hence its name, Census of the Heart. It wanted to gather a series of snapshots of where people were in their emotional lives in 2016, and what those surveyed thought Ireland would be like in a century hence.

“We were interested in taking the collective temperature,” Scott says.

Trailblazery describes itself as “a platform that presents cultural experiences that challenge the status quo.” As Scott put it: “We thought that because the national census was falling on the anniversary of the Easter Rising, that our census would be a really interesting way of disrupting things.”

The census included a number of questions that were common to the national census, such as age, place of residence, nationality, gender and marital status.

However, it offered far more answer options on some of these questions, such as the one on marital status, where respondents also had the choice of ticking: “In a non-registered civil partnership; In a registered partnership (outside of Ireland); In a registered same-sex civil partnership; and In a non-registered same-sex civil partnership.”

It also included a question about sexuality, with options being, “Heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, straight, asexual and other.” Then there were the statements that you’re never likely to see on any official census, where people were asked to answer on a scale that went between “Strongly disagree” through to “Strongly agree” and “Don’t know”. These included: “I feel cherished in Irish society”; “Most of the time I feel I am fulfilling my potential in my daily life”; I would like to spend more time out in nature”; “I love myself”’ and “I am searching for meaning in my life.”

There were questions that didn’t make it in. “We had one on how often people had sex and how people felt about their bodies, but then we realised that people would spend max five minutes on the survey and mightn’t necessarily want to tell strangers how often they had sex,” Scott says.

They were hopeful of receiving 1,000 completed surveys. “When 3,000 people had responded in the first 48 hours, we knew we were going to need help in analysing the data.”

As it turned out, there were 11,708 responses, with respondents from each of the 32 counties. The preliminary results are now out. There was also an option to complete the survey through Irish, which 224 people took up. Once the data was in, two of the researchers who helped analyse it were Anita McKeon of Smartlab at UCD and Angela McCourt, a research student of statistics at TCD.

So what did Census of the Heart reveal? In terms of the main demographic who completed it, most respondents were aged between 31 and 40 and female. Almost half of all respondents were from Dublin, and at the other end of the scale, the lowest number were from Antrim, at 1 per cent.

There is bad news for the people of Longford. The survey found respondents from that midland county “ranked lowest in a number of domains”. These included people not feeling positive about their life potential, not feeling empowered to bring change to their lives and the world and not feeling safe and happy in their homes.

“This suggests that the population in Longford is suffering relative to other parts of the country,” the researchers note.

In the gender question, people were encouraged to specify what “other” may be, along with the male and female option. While 73 per cent of the total identified as female, a little over 1 per cent identified as “other”, with respondents answering variously: “non-conforming; androgynous; genderqueer; gender fluid; nonbinary; transbinary; bigender and agender.” In all, there were an astonishing 81 different answers in the category of “other”.

People in Leitrim were found to be happiest, with people in Co Tyrone ranking the lowest in the happiness scale. For well-being, Derry scored highest, with near neighbours Fermanagh the lowest.

Question 27 asked people how they felt “most of the time”, with the options being “confident, content, grateful, invisible, joyful, lonely, overwhelmed, positive, sad, scared and other”. They were asked to choose no more than three (See graph overleaf). The top three feelings were “grateful”, “content” and “positive.” The fourth was “overwhelmed”, which was the highest negative response in all gender categories. Almost 10 per cent of respondents chose not to use any of the suggested words and wrote their own instead. These included, “Exhausted”, “bored”, “negative”, “tired”, “stressed”, disappointed”, “frustrated”, “insecure”, “lost”, “angry”, “numb” and “anxious”.

“We wanted the questions to take people on a journey,” Kennedy says. “A journey through your country, nation, your self, your community and to your future.”

There was one question in particular that the survey creators were keen to elicit detailed answers to, question 38, which was the final question. They explore those answers in some detail in the preliminary report of their findings.

Question 38 stated: “We were inspired to make Census of the Heart to influence and shape our future history. Imagine someone is reading this in 2116. Tell them in 50 words or less what it really feels like to be alive in Irish society in 2016.”

This question received paragraph-long answers. The section was not formatted to only take a set number of words, which wasn’t picked up on till later, and thus people could and did input entire paragraphs.

One of the reasons the organisers wanted to look a century into the future is because this is the 100th anniversary of 1916, a year during which we are marking the events of the Rising in a number of ways. It is an attempt at a kind of time capsule of how people felt about Irish society during the four-week period the survey was open, earlier in the year. These are some of the answers to that question.

“The government seem to be out of touch and fuelled by money.”

“For me and my young family, it’s a treadmill. Working hard to only pay bills. No money, time or energy left over for joy.”

“As a 30-year-old woman, I don’t often feel valued or cherished by the wider Irish society and I long to live elsewhere. Once I figure out the logistics and get over the fear, I will be emigrating.”

“On a local, community level, Irish people are kind and helpful. However, we are cowardly, greedy and short-sighted when it comes to our vision for our country. Probably due to our colonial history and recent poverty, it feels like we have far to go to be able to vote/govern our country with courage and intensity.”

“We have lost our love affair with the arts and have a bunch of money-hungry and corrupt politicians.”

“We live in a capitalistic world where we know the price of everything and the value of nothing and where our egos are bigger than our hearts.”

“The marriage referendum showed that we have the power to exact social change.”

“I am proud to be Irish but feel treated as a second-class citizen by my government because I am a woman.”

“Ireland is a country full of lovely people, but it is controlled by people who are obsessed with money and personal gain.”

“There is a fear that Irish people are too complacent to take action for real change.”

“Ireland is caught in a snare and our citizens need to start pushing back against those who would support the status quo and sell off our heritage.”

“It feels like a pivotal change in society, like we are on the brink of either self-destruction (Donald Trump, terrorism, dependence on social media and addiction to technology) or change for the better (liberal movements, better education and more jobs). It could go either way.”

Analysing these answers and many others to the same questions, the researchers suggest that respondents don’t believe that they can personally effect change and that they felt disempowered. When respondents referred to the system of government and politicians, they frequently used words such as “corrupt”, “broken” and “failing”.

Although the findings are still at a preliminary stage, what particularly interested Scott were the longer answers to open-ended questions, such as Question 38, in which people were invited to write about their thoughts, as opposed to ticking boxes.

“I’ve read about 6,000 surveys so far, and if you go through the whole survey, they tell a very different story at the end than the rest of the way through,” she says.

It emerges that while many respondents were very positive in the choices they made for the tick-box options, when they got an opportunity to write in some depth (many exceeded the suggested 50 words), they were often extremely negative in their outlook. “They got a lot heavier,” as Scott puts it.

Scott was surprised by responses to Question 15, which was “I feel cherished in Irish society”, which had possible answers ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” and “don’t know”. Roughly a fifth of all respondents skipped the question and, of those who answered, less than a third agreed. “I’m not sure why so many people skipped it.”

Census of the Heart was a pilot project for Trailblazery. It hopes to do another in the future, after the data from this one has been mined for as much information as possible. There was no budget per se; as it was a pilot project,Trailblazery received a lot of help and support for free.

Scott hopes that they will have a Trailblazery event around the findings of the census towards the end of the year, when they have dug deeper into the data. She also hopes that there might be an opportunity to develop the project further in a different way, through the arts.

“What we would love is if there was an opportunity for artists to respond. A choir singing, or a piece of theatre; something to make the data come alive.”

Read more about the census and its findings on censusoftheheart.com