The Unhappiest Places in America

Detroit Run Down
With its stagnant economy, high unemployment and dilapidated infrastructure, it’s no surprise that Detroit ranked high on the list of unhappy places.

In the current world market, many young people are relocating to cities in the US in an effort to get their hands on good job opportunities and/or lower housing prices.  But is this always a good idea?  I recently came across an article that shows that some of these urban centres are the unhappiest places in America.  There was an analysis co-authored by Joshua Gottlieb of the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics, suggesting that people are trading happiness for other gains.  The working paper, “Unhappy Cities”, relies on a large survey asking respondents about their satisfaction with life.  This measure, which is typically interpreted as a measure of happiness, indicates that individuals may be willing to endure less happiness in hopes of achieving higher income or lower housing costs.

According to Gottlieb, this research indicates that people care about more than just being happy, with other factors encouraging them to stay in a city in spite of unhappiness.  This means that researchers and policy-makers shouldn’t consider an increase in reported happiness as an overriding objective.  Gottlieb and his co-authors investigated which regions of the US tended to report lower life satisfaction, and discovered that residents of declining cities seem to be less happy than those living in other parts of the US.  Interestingly, long-term residents seem to be just as unhappy as newer residents, suggesting that the city’s unhappiness persists over time.  And historical data indicates that cities that are currently in decline were also unhappy during their more prosperous pasts (take, for example, Detroit or Buffalo).

The major metropolitan areas in the US (greater than 1 million) with the highest reported happiness were Richmond, Norfolk, Washington DC, Raleigh, Atlanta, Houston, Jacksonville, Nashville, West Palm Beach/Boca Raton and Middlesex/Somerset/Hunterdon.  With the exception of the Middlesex-Somerset-Hunterdon metropolitan area, all of these places are located in the southern half of the United States.  While the study doesn’t discuss this link, it would be an interesting aspect of it to pursue in further detail.  This detail is flipped over when you look at the least happy American regions of a similar size: New York, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Milwaukee, Detroit, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Las Vegas, Buffalo and Philadelphia.  Almost all of these (except for Louisville, St. Louis and Las Vegas) are in the northern half of the United States, and many of them are areas that were (or continue to be) relevant and important regions.


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