There’s a saying, “wherever you go, there you are,” which basically means don’t expect your life to change just because you’ve moved to a new place. A new paper called "Unhappy Cities" from a trio of economists says that attitude’s plain wrong. They analyze happiness levels in US metropolitan areas and find that just like it’s hard to be healthy when you’re breathing bad air, some cities actually make their citizens less happy than they might otherwise be.
The authors are Edward Glaeser (who’s also a Globe columnist) and Oren Ziv of Harvard, and Joshua Gottlieb of the University of British Columbia, and the paper was released this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research. They used data from national surveys, which asked people to assess how satisfied they are with their lives.
The metropolitan areas with the least happy residents tended to be declining industrial cities. Springfield, Massachusetts was the eighth least happy city, only marginally better off than such cheery locales as Scranton and Jersey City. Large east coast metropolitan areas fared badly in general—of big cities, New York City was the #1 least happy. Bostonians were also dissatisfied with their lives on the whole, though we fall outside the top-10 least happy cities in the U.S.
Happiness studies are always controversial, not least of all because terms like “happiness” and “satisfaction” are hard to define precisely. One question this study raises is whether specific places make people unhappy, or whether unhappy people happen to cluster in specific places. The authors find that place matters, such that the average person moving from Charlottesville, Virginia (the happiest metro area of all) to Boston, would become less satisfied with his life.
A second question is why people would choose to live in intrinsically unhappy places. In an opinion piece in the Globe in May, Glaeser argued that happiness is just one kind of goal. Others, like higher paying jobs, more professional opportunity, or better schools, are also laudable goals, even if they might lead us to move to places that are expensive and rat race-y and make us less satisfied with our lives.
There are good reasons people might choose to be less satisfied with their lives, especially when satisfaction is defined as something narrow like moment-to-moment contentment. At the same time, we make bad decisions in our lives all the time—and unhappiness itself can promote bad decision-making. So why don’t unhappy people move away from unhappy places? Some people may stay put because they want to, but there’s also surely a large category of people who would if they could, but for any number of reasons, they can’t.
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