SMILES and laughter - not material possessions and wealth - are the key to happiness for Bolton people, according to the results of a 2014 "Mass Observation" project.

However, the study also found that 63 per cent were happier when they were away from Bolton.

The findings are gleaned from a survey carried out by The Bolton News and the University of Bolton replicating the groundbreaking social experiment first carried out in the town in 1938, as academics today seek to discover the secret of being happy.

And it appears that what made people happy 70 years ago is very different to what people want in order to be happy today — although respondents did agree that they thought wealth is not linked to happiness.

Professor of Psychology, Jerome Carson, who led the study with researcher Sandie McHugh, said: “We are delighted with the response to the Happiness Survey. We now have a total of more than 400 respondents from the Bolton area.

“Perhaps the most significant finding is the change in the relative importance of religion.

“In 1938, the people of Bolton rated religion as the third most important contributor to happiness.

“Today it is ranked 10 out of 10. It would seem to be matched in dwindling church attendances.

“People still feel that ‘luck’ plays a role in happiness and the proportion of people believing this hasn't changed much.”

The survey was inspired by the Mass Observation Project which documented life in Bolton, chosen to represent a typical northern town.

In 1938, a poster was published in The Bolton Evening News, asking people to answer the question what is happiness and compile happiness index by ranking in order of importance, 1-10 — one being the most important — on topics ranging from more beauty, to more security and more religion.

They were also asked a number of questions, including how often they would describe themselves as really happy, if they were happier in or away from Bolton, and whether luck had anything to do with happiness.

This was repeated in February last year, with 489 people responding.

In 1938, there was no comprehensive welfare state and people were educated to just 14-years-old. Unemployment stood at 17 per cent for males and 12 for females with a population of 177,000.

Today , Bolton has a population of 276,800 and unemployment in 2013 stood at 8.2 per cent in the North West. Heavy industry has been replaced by call centres, services, data processing and traditional industries retained on a smaller scale. There are now universal benefits and an NHS – and education is to 18.

A breakdown of the results showed that today, more humour, more leisure and more security can help create true happiness, while 70 years ago it was economic security, more knowledge and more religion — the latter coming bottom of the 2014 survey.

Least vital to happiness today and in 1938 was more leadership, more politics — with more pleasure seen as not key to happiness back then.

And while in 1938 the majority of the people were happy most of the time, in 2014 it was the weekend – and 63 per cent were happier away from the town. Today 67 per cent of those who completed the survey said they enjoyed their life a lot.

Although security ranked top in 1938 for happiness, material wealth on its own was not generally seen to generate happiness with extracts from letters stating: “Enough money to meet everyday needs and a little for pleasure.”

And: “A little bit put by for a rainy day”, “Money can’t buy happiness.”

In 2014, 76 per cent said "no" to the question whether happiness was directly linked to the amount of material possessions and wealth you have? — with one stating: “...and simple things like going out for a walk with the dog etc. You don’t need tons of material things to be happy.”

Professor Carson said: “Happiness is important as even Governments recognise that there is more to life than a country's Gross Domestic Product.

“Ultimately Governments want to know what impact their policies have on people's wellbeing.

“This may be a double-edged sword for them.

“It may turn out that their policies have an adverse impact on health and wellbeing.

“In terms of health, it is still clear that there is a north-south divide.

"People in the more prosperous south of the country have better health than those of us in the north.”

Ms McHugh said that money and happiness and the role of materialism and happiness is currently widely debated,

She said: "Many of the 1938 letters recognised that money alone would not bring happiness, but they would like "enough to live on".

"This is understandable with pre-welfare state safety net. Our survey asked if happiness was directly linked to the amount of material possessions and wealth respondents had, 76 per cent of the sample analysed said that it did not."