Monday Mornings with Madison

The Connection Between Happiness and Place

The U.S. Declaration of Independence boldly states in the Preamble that “All men are created equal.  And that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.  That among these rights is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  The pursuit of happiness was and is still viewed today as an undeniable right and goal of all people.  Of course, one doesn’t have to be a scientist to know that there are many factors that impact individual happiness.  Relationships.  Career.  Economic well-being.  Personal freedom.  Spirituality.  Physical fitness.  Emotional health.  However, little scientific research had been done on measuring happiness… until recently.  More and more, there has been a push to understand what affects happiness in order to be able to pursue and attain it.

One major factor affecting individual (and collective) happiness is place.  In recent years, scientists are finding that apparently where we live plays a big role in our happiness.   There is a relationship between community life and health, and that the place where one lives affects not only one’s mental health but also that elusive but desirable state of being referred to as “happiness.”   Recent research indicates that there is a strong relationship between happiness and place.  So which places offer the greatest opportunity to be happy?  And why isn’t everyone moving there?

To be Happy or Not to be Happy

In 2012, a study published in Urban Affairs Review, authored by a team from West Virginia University and the University of South Carolina Upstate, examined detailed polling data on happiness and city characteristics reported by 1000 people in each of ten major international cities (New York, London, Paris, Stockholm, Toronto, Milan, Berlin, Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo).  The article entitled “Understanding the Pursuit of Happiness in Ten Major Cities” concluded that a “good city” contributes positively to happiness.

They found that the design and conditions of a city have a profound impact on the happiness of the people who live there.  They looked at 10 major urban centers.  The factors that most affected individual happiness included:

  • Easy access to convenient public transportation
  • Abundant cultural and leisure amenities
  • Affordability
  • Good place to raise children

The more people felt their community was beautiful, clean, and safe, the more likely they were to report being happy.  Such places fostered the type of social connections that improved happiness and ultimately enhanced the attractiveness of city life.

The authors of the study hypothesized that the reason the way a neighborhood is designed and maintained impacts the happiness of its residents is because a place can facilitate human social connections and relationships.  People are often connected to quality places that are cultural and distinctive, designed and built to foster and enable connections.  But not all places do this.  Some communities are built to discourage connections or become places that are antisocial because of negative activities.  Other neighborhood designs are suited for social connectedness.  Based on that, it would make sense that people would flock to places that were designed to increase happiness.  Yet, this does not seem to be the case.

Even though happiness has been confirmed to be connected to place and some places seem to be better suited for residents to be happy, happiness doesn’t seem to be the ultimate deciding factor in where people live.  This was confirmed in a more recent study looking at happiness according to location in the U.S.  The National Bureau of Economic Research shared a Working Paper in July 2014 entitled “Unhappy Cities”. In it, Edward L. Glaeser with the Department of Economics at Harvard University, Oren Ziv of Harvard University and Joshua D. Gottlieb of the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia looked at data that measured how happy people perceived themselves to be (their own measure of happiness) in cities and towns across the U.S.   They were looking to see if there were any geographic trends.  Did people living in certain places tend to be happier than people living in other places?   Was it related to place or was it really related to economic well-being and wealth?  And do people gravitate toward places that have more happy residents?

The study found that there are persistent geographical differences in just how happy people perceive themselves to be across U.S. metropolitan areas.  Not surprisingly, they found that residents of ‘declining cities’ appeared to be less happy than other Americans.  Even newer residents of those “declining cities” were as unhappy as long-term residents.  What was surprising is that, despite that, people continued moving to those “unhappier” places.

Although there hadn’t been a lot of historical data on happiness (something that sociologists only recently started measuring and tracking), the available data suggested that cities now in decline (those so-called unhappy cities) were unhappy even during their more prosperous past.  Thus, unhappy places have a history of being and tendency toward continuing to be unhappy…. And it wasn’t based on economic prosperity.

Based on the evidence, the researchers suggested that individuals seemed willing to sacrifice happiness in exchange for other factors such as higher incomes.  Residents were willing to prioritize and make trade-offs among competing objectives, including but not limited to happiness.  Happiness wasn’t the be-all, end-all goal; just one factor among many to consider and weigh.  That may be the reason everyone does not move to cities that rank as having happier residents.

Quote of the Week

“Places, like people, are complex, and loving them isn’t simple.” Kate Milford

 

© 2014, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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