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The appeal of unhappy cities

Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers from Harvard University and the Vancouver School of Economics have determined the happiest and unhappiest cities in the country. The results might surprise you. (Video: Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)
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Happiness is admittedly, incredibly subjective. One person's happiness (from a high-stakes job, a sprawling yard, a set of twins) is another's headache. Even the things that make most of us happy — dessert, puppies — do so in degrees: That cupcake that brings you some joy may make another person's day.

All of this variability is what makes the geography of happiness so fascinating: Despite our deeply personal differences and definitions of what brings us pleasure (or what saps it), strong patterns emerge across the country when we ask people to describe their own wellbeing.

The below interactive map uses data from a recent working paper on happy (and unhappy) cities by economists Edward Glaeser and Oren Ziv at Harvard and Joshua Gottlieb at the University of British Columbia. Their research mines responses from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a national survey run by the CDC that has fueled most of what we know about the economics of happiness.

The survey asks one particularly relevant question of about 300,000 Americans every year: “In general, how satisfied are you with your life?” The possible answers: very satisfied, satisfied, dissatisfied, and very dissatisfied. That language is often treated as a proxy for happiness by researchers. And Glaeser and colleagues have used it to calculate aggregate levels of happiness for 318 metropolitan areas across the country, adjusted for income and demographics.

The differences between the happiest and least happy cities aren't huge, but they're significant. And some clear patterns instantly jump out. Unhappiness looks like it's concentrated in some wealthier, urban areas (New York ranks 318th out of 318), and also throughout the Rust Belt (Detroit, Akron and Pittsburgh).

10 Happiest Cities

Rank Metro area State
1 Lafayette LA
2 Houma LA
3 Shreveport-Bossier City LA
4 Baton Rouge LA
5 Alexandria LA
6 Rochester MN
7 Corpus Christi TX
8 Lake Charles LA
9 Nashville TN
10 Gainesville FL

10 Unhappiest Cities

Rank Metro area State
1 New York NY
2 St. Joseph MO
3 South Bend IN
4 Erie PA
5 Evansville-Henderson IN-KY
6 Toledo OH
7 Jersey City NJ
8 Detroit MI
9 Gary IN
10 Scranton--Wilkes-Barre--Hazleton PA

But what does that mean? A few trends and theories from the new research:

Many of the unhappiest cities are cities that have been in decline.

This doesn't apply to New York, but it does to many of the other cities above: Places that have been declining in population, and that have had meager income growth, tend to have lower levels of happiness. Think St. Louis, Cleveland, Louisville. Unhappiness is particularly common in areas that have lost population. But the inverse isn't necessarily true: Places that have been growing rapidly aren't notably much happier.

As the researchers put it: "It is not that high-growth places are particularly happy, but rather that very low-growth areas are particularly unhappy."

But these same cities were historically unhappy, too.

In fact, they were even unhappier in the past. The CDC data doesn't go back this far. But the researchers also looked at General Social Survey data dating to the 1970s, and Gallup polls that go back to the 1940s. "The available facts," they write, "suggest that cities that are now declining were also unhappy in their more prosperous past."

This raises a couple of interesting questions: Did the unhappiness of these places drive people away? Or did the decline itself cause so much unhappiness? Maybe these places aren't intrinsically unhappy at all — they just happened to attract the kind of people who were unhappy even before they moved there?

Glaeser and colleagues dismiss this last explanation. And they suspect that the link between unhappiness and urban decline tells us something about these cities themselves:

We do not interpret this correlation as suggesting that population decline causes unhappiness. Indeed, cities that have declined also seem to have been unhappy in the past, which suggests that a better interpretation might be that these areas were always unhappy—and that was one reason why they declined.

So why do people live there?

If Detroit was always relatively unhappy, why did anyone live there in the 1940s? If Cleveland remains fairly unhappy today, why do some people still move there? In Detroit, the researchers propose, "historically its residents were well compensated for their joylessness."

In other words, they made a lot of money. Unhappy places — the big industrial hubs of the early 20th century — used to compensate people for their unhappiness with higher wages. That's obviously no longer true of these same Rust Belt cities. But now compensation comes in another form: cheap rent.

That tells us something about the pursuit of happiness — at least as it relates to where we decide to live.

If you think people make decisions to maximize personal happiness, then it doesn't make sense that anyone would knowingly move to an unhappy place. Glaeser, Gotlieb and Ziv argue, though, that happiness is an input in our decision-making, not the end-goal. "For the right reward," they suggest, we're willing to sacrifice happiness.

Meanwhile, happier cities are newer Sun Belt cities, but their allure isn't just about the weather.

One of the first patterns that may have jumped out at you on the above map is the role of climate: Sun-drenched cities seem happier; snow-covered places less so. But the researchers point to differences between these parts of the country that have to do with a lot more than weather.

We originally built cities like Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh because they were near waterways or coalmines. They were designed, in effect, around industry. They were built for productivity, not pleasure. In fact, those two goals were in many ways mutually exclusive. You could either have shipping docks, or a nice beach — but not both:

In the early part of the 20th century, a city needed to be unpleasant to be productive. In the late 20th century, it did not. Since technological change favored pleasant, happier locales, it seemed as if happiness was tied to income growth, even if it was ultimately driven by the local environment.

More recently, we've been expanding what Gleaser has called "consumer cities" — places like Phoenix or Las Vegas built around amenities more than heavy industry. These places were actually built with consumer wellbeing in mind, which may explain why people say they're happier there.

Happiness, though, apparently isn't everything.