What Makes a City Unhappy? - Pacific Standard

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country's unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.
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An abandoned church in Detroit. (Photo: rockandrollfreak/Flickr)

An abandoned church in Detroit. (Photo: rockandrollfreak/Flickr)

I live in two of the country's saddest cities. At least that’s if I’m to believe the results of a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper titled "Unhappy Cities." It ranked Louisville—heart of bourbon country, home to a thriving culinary scene, and a friendly, growing place by all accounts—our nation's third unhappiest city. Detroit—that mid-resurgence metropolis where I just bought a second home—landed fifth. My beloved cities were joined by places like Indianapolis, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee.

What does this analysis really mean? I immediately wanted to know. And which factors do they use to come up with their measure of unhappiness?

"Unhappy Cities" actually expands on earlier research by economists Stephen Wu of Hamilton College and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick. Their paper, "Well Being Across America," puts both Kentucky and Michigan in the bottom six states for well-being. I asked Wu to explain those rankings.

Though contemporary economic woes seem like the obvious answer to Detroit’s unhappiness, the problem is far more complex: The city was unhappy even at the height of its manufacturing success.

“When a lot of people look at happiness across areas, often they average up people and say 'OK, here are the rankings' without adjusting for the fact that we have a different composition of people,” he explains. “If we control for different demographics, if we compare apples and apples, might there be some characteristics in different areas that make people unhappy?” Turns out the answer is yes.

Their research used two questions from the world's largest telephone health survey: the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). More than 350,000 adults annually answer “...for how many days during the past 30 days was your mental health not good?” and “In general, how satisfied are you with your life?” Options include very satisfied, satisfied, dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied.

Think about the stereotypes in my Kentucky home—poverty comes to mind—and our showing seems obvious. But wait, researchers say—there's no significant correlation between higher income and greater well-being. Being poor doesn't make us unhappy.

Building on Wu's research, economist Joshua Gottlieb of the Vancouver School of Economics at University of British Columbia and his co-authors embarked on an ambitious study drilling down to the city level of the same survey. While compiling "Unhappy Cities," they also looked at people who have moved from one city to another and examined historical research. They, too, found “significant differences across metropolitan areas.” And, in the process, they debunked the possibility that people predisposed to unhappiness are drawn to horrid places.

The researchers found that unhappiness dates back as far as they looked—into the 1940s. Though contemporary economic woes seem like the obvious answer to Detroit’s current unhappiness, the problem is far more complex: The city was relatively unhappy even at the height of its manufacturing success.

NOBODY WANTS TO ACKNOWLEDGE they'd make such a poor decision as to call two miserable places home. So am I crazy or is there more to this picture? I had lots of questions. If these cities are so unhappy, what makes them so? Why do people choose to live in them? Most chilling: Are certain cities destined to be unhappy? And what should we do about it?

I turned to Mark Binelli, author of Detroit City Is the Place to Be, for a report on Detroit's psyche. The journalist lived in the Motor City from 2009 to 2012 as he researched his saga. Binelli was in Detroit just before we spoke.

"Unhappy is just such a broad term, but I think Detroit and the region is still pretty fucked."

“I don't want to speak for the whole city but there is a certain feeling of hopelessness,” he tells me. “Unhappy is just such a broad term, but I think Detroit and the region is still pretty fucked. I love Detroit and I'm still optimistic about the future but there are plenty of things to be unhappy about. The economy is still a mess, and there's still a huge divide between this 'gleaming new Detroit' we read about and most of the rest of the city.”

Binelli was eager to drive around on this last trip and see the “ascendant new Detroit.” But “the same strips I'd driven on hundreds of times were unchanged,” he says. “If anything I think they are more ruined. That's depressing, that made me unhappy.”

And don't underplay the effect of that blight, he says. Besides the “gray Midwestern skies” that can affect your mood, “another factor that can play on your psyche in subtle ways is the way the city looks,” he adds. “When you live there you get inured to it but–and this is from somebody who loves Detroit–I would find my mood darkening, and some of it was aesthetic. Drive past a strip of shops that looked like they burned in the '67 riots and haven't been changed–I think it has a psychological effect even if you’re a hardened Detroiter.”

Blight itself “can be associated with ... problems [that] include crime, suburban flight, the diminution of economic opportunities, unsafe public spaces, drug problems and so forth,” according to research from Trinity College. It becomes a vicious circle in which “urban decay leads to social changes (in behavior, the economic base, etc.) which then result in further decay.”

The response for some—those who can, anyway—is to flee.

“Many homes in Detroit are structurally sound, often with beautiful architecture and wonderful features, yet they sit abandoned today because of the blight that surrounds them,” notes a report from the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force. “When homeowners feel that there is no hope for their neighborhood's future, they just leave.”

"People who live in monofunctional, car-dependent neighbourhoods outside urban centres are much less trusting of other people than people who live in walkable neighbourhoods."

The resulting cityscape of urban prairie, graffiti, and crumbling buildings does become just a normal backdrop after enough time in Detroit, I've found, but it still saddens me, and angers me when I wonder how we let such a great city fall so far.

It's easy to point fingers, of course. It's the Motor City after all, not a place designed to encourage the kind of social interaction that is so key to building strong relationships.

But looming behind so many issues plaguing the city is the embedded inequality so great you can see it from space. Happy City author and urbanist Charles Montgomery was struck by what he called the “searing inequities” he saw in Detroit a few days before we spoke. “Privileged people abandoned the city to the people who were least able to thrive there,” he says.

So, when did the city start to fall apart? “Often, people incorrectly isolate the 1967 riot as the pivotal Detroit-gone-wrong moment, after which nothing ever went right,” Binelli notes in his book. “In fact, the auto industry had been in a serious economic slump for at least a decade prior, with tension in the black community festering for even longer and the axial shift of jobs and white residents from city proper to suburbs solidly under way.”

URBAN PLANNER AND UNIVERSITY of Louisville professor John Gilderbloom didn't paint a much prettier picture of Louisville. “Personally I am happy,” he says. “It's provided me with opportunities to do what I love, but I might be the exception. Louisville has many problems.” He proceeded to reel off statistics that made me want to high tail out of town. “We are the place of minimum wage and dangerous jobs; we eat bad food, we don't exercise enough, and we live near toxic areas that aren't regulated enough; we have one of the highest cancer rates of any city and some of the lowest proportion of people graduating high school. It's a mess. Are we on a path to being like Detroit where we lose it all?” I couldn't answer that without bias, since I still want to jump to Detroit's defense whenever it's held up as the ultimate collapse.

I could answer, however, another question he posed. “Would you still be happy in Louisville if you were working a minimum wage job at Walmart?”

I would not. In part, that's because I'd likely be without a car in a city that necessitates one. I used our limited bus system for some years and agree with Montgomery's assessment of American buses as having all the charm of a prison toilet. This car dependence, both in Louisville and Detroit, doesn't bode well for happiness.

"Only now we know that abandoning the city is akin to abandoning what matters most to life itself. Because above all the city is a social machine, and it's our robust and complex relationships that make us happy."

“The most powerful correlate of happiness in cities is social trust,” Montgomery says. And, as he notes in the book, “people who live in monofunctional, car-dependent neighbourhoods outside urban centres are much less trusting of other people than people who live in walkable neighbourhoods where housing is mixed with shops, services and places to work.”

WHY DO PEOPLE CHOOSE to move to unhappy cities? The researchers differed.

We willingly make trade-offs, Gottlieb posits. “People have other objectives and they're not just trying to maximize happiness,” he says. Though historical data shows Detroit was an unhappy place even in its heyday, “You could easily decide it's worth it,” Gottlieb says. Even now “people choose to move there and that must mean that Detroit is offering something—something different than happiness. One thing important to people is lower housing prices.” In this view, we'll give up happiness if we can live high on the hog—whether through fat paychecks or cheap houses.

Wu concurs that people may be motivated by objectives other than happiness, but also suggests another interpretation. He cites the phenomenon of the focusing illusion, in which we only think something will make us happy. “While we may try to maximize well-being, we're not always the best judges," Wu says. "We think things will make us happy, but they will not. Like more income, or moving to another location or parenting. We don't always know what we're getting into.”

I wonder if there's another main ingredient that powers the decision: We tend to think we're the exception. Other people might be unhappy in these cities, but that doesn't mean we have to be. It's only natural, after all. We want to avoid the cognitive dissonance that comes with admitting a poor decision. Besides, we tend to think we're such experts on ourselves that we won't rely on experts or their data. In fact, even mentioning this might be my own attempt to rationalize choosing homes in two of the five unhappiest cities.

BUT WAIT, CAN WE really rely on studies like this? Does being satisfied mean the same thing as being happy? Wu acknowledges the issue.

“We're a little bit loose with that,” he says. “They're quite related but they're not one and the same.”

While Gottlieb maintains that the terms can be used interchangeably, the goal of his research isn't to make value judgments. “I wouldn't want anyone to look at this [list] and say 'I'm doing something wrong.' They shouldn't use this as a recommendation, nor should policymakers.”

When you take the long view, "every city is a cycle of growth, change, corrosion, and regrowth."

Meanwhile, there's a camp that does want policymakers to look at well-being and make relevant changes to our cities to fix the problem. That's not to say they should look at these reports, per se. “I'm very suspicious of using subjective well-being as a measure of geographic success,” Montgomery says.

Because Montgomery was in Detroit just before we spoke, I was curious about what he thought of the city in light of this Henry Ford quote in his book: “The modern city is probably the most unlovely and artificial site this planet affords. The ultimate solution is to abandon it.... We shall solve the City Problem by leaving the city.”

Chilling, no?

“Detroit seems to have fulfilled the aspiration that Henry Ford set out when he said that we save ourselves by abandoning the city,” Montgomery says. “Only now we know that abandoning the city is akin to abandoning what matters most to life itself. Because above all the city is a social machine, and it's our robust and complex relationships that make us happy.”

Ford notwithstanding, Detroit and other now-declining cities were built for production, not pleasure, the authors of the "Unhappy Cities" paper argue. Was Detroit doomed to be unhappy? Montgomery was appalled at the thought.

WHEN YOU TAKE THE long view, “every city is a cycle of growth, change, corrosion, and regrowth,” Montgomery says. “The more important question is, how can all our cities, but in particular Detroit, build happiness in its forms and systems and society? The best thing we can do ... is to invest in those districts that were done well the first time around, that have good bones. Detroit's city core and central neighborhoods offer a fantastic foundation. It's begun to happen. The great challenge is, how can Detroit reclaim its mojo while including everybody?”

"I think it's really dangerous to take these surveys and put your magnifying glass on the community that appears to get the highest rating and copy what they've done."

We can't all be the shiny, happy cities Louisiana—with four metropolitan areas on the happy list—offers. But when I think about ideas from folks like Gilderbloom and Montgomery, I feel optimistic about my cities’ future.

For me, happiness can be found in the pursuit of passions. Surrounding myself with other people who are pursuing their passions pushes me to stick to my own. In Detroit, I often draw inspiration from people working to transform the city through outdoor art, and in Louisville, I feel energized by the city’s host of craft-obsessed chefs. Perhaps the collective reinvention of these cities will bring us some happiness of its own.

Not that changing entire cultures of cities is easy, or even simple. Each place needs its own creative approach.

“I think it's really dangerous to take these surveys and put your magnifying glass on the community that appears to get the highest rating and copy what they've done,” he says. “We risk making the same mistake Henry Ford made. He tried to distill the city into a simple problem that could be fixed with a simple solution. We should not do the same.”

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