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No, New York Is Not the Unhappiest City in America

A map of adjusted life satisfaction, after controlling for demographics and individual income.
A map of adjusted life satisfaction, after controlling for demographics and individual income.
National Bureau of Economic Research

Last week the National Bureau of Economic Research published a working paper, "Unhappy Cities," that was a collaboration between Harvard professor Edward Glaeser, Vancouver School of Economics professor Joshua Gottlieb and Harvard doctoral student Oren Ziv.

Researchers found that differences in a person's level of happiness depended on the city that person lives in, regardless of whether he or she has lived there his or her entire life or just relocated. The report ranked metropolitan areas in terms of happiness and, since rankings (no matter how arbitrary) are one thing reporters and readers just can't resist, "New York Is the Unhappiest American City" is the headline that emerged.

It's worth pointing out that the study doesn't say that New York City is the unhappiest city in the United States--it says its the fourth unhappiest city, only slightly unhappier than Pittsburgh.

Here's the order that actually appears in the study, along with each city's adjusted happiness rate ("adjusted" in this case means that researchers controlled for demographics).

Scranton, PA, -0.154 Erie, PA, - 0.147 South Bend, IN, -0.138 New York, NY, -0.123 Pittsburgh, PA, -0.115

If you re-rank the list using a new adjusted happiness rate that controls not just for demographics but also for income, only then does New York come out on bottom, followed by South Bend, Indiana; Erie, Pennsylvania; Detroit, Michigan and Gary, Indiana. (When researchers adjusted for neither demographics nor income, New York ranked second unhappiest after Gary.)

Income, it turns out, is actually pretty important, but we'll get to that later. First, let's talk about how happiness itself is defined in the study because its an interesting question in itself -- how does one measure happiness? In average endorphin levels? In minutes spent smiling? (In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cuuups of coffee?)

  For this study, scientists relied on data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every year between 2005 and 2010, the CDC has asked about 300,000 respondents the question: "In general, how satisfied are you with your life?" Respondents had the choice of answering very satisfied, satisfied, dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied.

So, it's not really happiness researchers are analyzing, but satisfaction ("We recognize that satisfaction may strictly differ from happiness, but we will use the terms interchangeably," the authors admit) and, self-reported satisfaction at that.

One could argue there is a big difference between happiness and satisfaction. Satisfaction is basically resignation: the point where something is good enough to make you stop striving for something better. By definition, "the fulfillment of one's wishes, expectations, or needs." If you had very low expectations for your life, and you met those expectations, you would be satisfied but doesn't mean you would be happy. Which is why it might be just as accurate to characterize this as a study of who has the lowest bar for life satisfaction. (Controlling for income and demographics: 1. Lafayette, LA, 2. Shreveport, LA, 3. Non-metropolitan Hawaii, 4. Rochester, MN, 5. Nashville, TN.)

And satisfaction, as the researchers point out, is not necessarily the chief motivating factor for most people, especially the residents of cities like New York. "We have objectives in life other than being satisfied, and we may knowingly make choices that reduce happiness, such as exposing ourselves to a more competitive environment, if those choices further other aims," they write. "Urban unhappiness must be offset by some other urban amenity, such as higher real incomes."

(Later, they add drolly: "the residents of unhappier metropolitan areas today do receive higher real wages -- presumably as compensation for their misery.")

If you needed any more evidence that New Yorkers are not actually as unhappy as we've been led to believe by the deluge of articles and blog posts this week, consider what the researchers have to say about New York when it comes to the definitive measure of misery -- the suicide rate.

"New York City may be the prime example of the mismatch between SWB [subjective well-being] and suicide. New York is particularly notable for both its low suicide rates and its low subjective well-being. We do not think that this implies that subjective well-being is without value as a measure, but rather that it is likely an incomplete and imperfect measure of economists' conception of utility."


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