Why Are Some Cities Happier Than Others?

Earlier this week, I wrote about the new rankings of happy cities based on the 2010 edition of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. The map below shows how 185 of America's largest metros stack up on this happiness index.

In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert notes that there are three great decisions in life that affect your happiness: "Where to live, what to do, and with whom to do it."  The second two have been examined in great depth; the third, up until now, not so much.

Happiness -- or what students of the subject refer to as "subjective well-being" -- is typically charted and studied at the national level.  But we can use the detailed data and rankings provided by this new Well-Being Index to better understand the factors that make people happier in some cities than others.  (I'd be remiss if I failed to point out that, as with everything else that is subjective, not everyone is happy with the same kind of city -- a point that I ruminate upon at some length in my book Who's Your City?).

So with the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander, I looked at some of the key characteristics of cities that are associated with greater happiness across these U.S. metros. A good deal of the research on happiness finds that income plays a crucial role. While there was some debate on this early on -- note the eponymous Easterlin Paradox, which says that income and happiness don't relate at the national level -- there is now a broad consensus that happiness and income are closely associated. We look at the effects of income, as well as other key variables -- such as education levels or human capital, and the nature of the job market and workforce (that is, the share of jobs in knowledge-based, professional and creative industries as opposed to blue-collar working class fields).  As usual, our analysis points only to associations between variables. It does not specify causation or the causal direction of those associations, which are questions for future research. Still, the results are interesting across several dimensions.


Are wealthier cities, like wealthier nations, also happier cities?  Indeed they are. We find reasonably strong correlations between well-being and several measures of income and wealth -- hourly wages (.41) and income (.38), and economic output per capita (.38).

Conventional wisdom and academic studies alike suggest that levels of happiness would fall as unemployment rises. And this is what we find. There is a significant negative correlation between unemployment and happiness across U.S. metros (-.33).

Education levels, or human capital, have a huge effect on city economies, being closely associated with city incomes.  They play a substantial role in reported levels of well-being as well. There is a close association between human capital (measured as the percentage of adults with a college degree or higher) and city happiness (.69)- - considerably stronger than that for income.


And what about the kind of work we do? My own research has documented the connection between a large-scale presence of the creative class of workers -- people who work in science and technology; business and management; arts, culture and entertainment; medicine and education -- and the prosperity of cities. But it's about more than prosperity. Once a certain threshold of income is met, our research finds, the work people do plays a substantial role in their happiness, over and above the effect of income at the nationalstate, and city levels. Our findings here reinforce and confirm this conclusion. There is a substantial positive correlation between city happiness and the share of creative class jobs (.5) and a significant negative one between well-being and the share of working class jobs (-.4).

The composition of city job markets plays a considerable role in our sense of well-being as well. Cities with more knowledge, professional and creative jobs have less unemployment (the rate of unemployment in these fields barely crossed five percent during the worst of the downturn and is now back down below it) and higher levels of income. And creative work is intrinsically satisfying; it makes better use of our social and cognitive skills. Having creative and purposeful work to do is in itself a key factor in happiness, as detailed studies by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have noted.

Conversely, cities with more blue-collar economies have been among the hardest hit by the economic crisis. Unemployment is high, incomes are lower.  Workers in these kinds of jobs have faced much greater trouble finding new jobs (the unemployment rate for production workers is 10 percent; for construction workers it tops 20 percent). Not only do these workers have skills and incomes which are tied to their specific jobs, many in these areas are trapped in underwater homes and unable to relocate to areas with more work and greater opportunity:  Hardly a recipe for happiness.

It's increasingly apparent that America is becoming more and more divided and unequal -- by income, by the kind of work we do, by our levels of education, by our politics and culture. And perhaps most dangerously, Americans are divided by their sense of happiness and well-being as well. Along with everything else that polarizes us, America increasingly faces an increasingly unequal geography of class and happiness.