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The appeal of unhappy cities

First Published Aug 02 2014 07:03 pm • Last Updated Aug 02 2014 07:03 pm

Happiness is admittedly, incredibly subjective. One person’s happiness (from a high-stakes job, a sprawling yard, a set of twins) is another’s headache. Even the things that make most of us happy — dessert, puppies — do so in degrees: That cupcake that brings you some joy may make another person’s day.

All of this variability is what makes the geography of happiness so fascinating: Despite our deeply personal differences and definitions of what brings us pleasure (or what saps it), strong patterns emerge across the country when we ask people to describe their own well-being.

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The data here is from a recent working paper on happy (and unhappy) cities by economists Edward Glaeser and Oren Ziv at Harvard and Joshua Gottlieb at the University of British Columbia. Their research mines responses from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a national survey run by the CDC that has fueled most of what we know about the economics of happiness.

The survey asks one particularly relevant question of about 300,000 Americans every year: "In general, how satisfied are you with your life?" The possible answers: very satisfied, satisfied, dissatisfied, and very dissatisfied. That language is often treated as a proxy for happiness by researchers. And Glaeser and colleagues have used it to calculate aggregate levels of happiness for 318 metropolitan areas across the country, adjusted for income and demographics.

The differences between the happiest and least happy cities aren’t huge, but they’re significant. And some clear patterns instantly jump out. Unhappiness looks like it’s concentrated in some wealthier, urban areas (New York ranks 318th out of 318), and also throughout the Rust Belt (Detroit, Akron and Pittsburgh).

10 Happiest Cities

1. Lafayette, La.

2. Houma, La.

3. Shreveport-Bossier City, La.

4. Baton Rouge, La.


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5. Alexandria, La.

6. Rochester, Minn.

7. Corpus Christi, Texas

8. Lake Charles, La.

9. Nashville, Tenn.

10. Gainesville, Fla.

10 Unhappiest Cities

1. New York

2. St. Joseph, Mo.

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