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Bike Lanes in Gomorrah

Armed with happiness studies, a new book makes a hedonistic case for virtuous urbanism.


New Orleans is a puzzle for social engineers who think they know how to make people happy. As journalist Dan Baum wrote in Nine Lives, his book about Hurricane Katrina, “Long before the storm, New Orleans was by almost any metric the worst city in the United States—the deepest poverty, the most murders, the worst schools, the sickest economy, the most corrupt and brutal cops.”

And yet, Baum noted, a Gallup poll conducted just weeks before the storm found that “more New Orleanians—regardless of age, race, or wealth—were ‘extremely satisfied’ with their lives than residents of any other American city.”

How could a city with so many glaring problems be the most upbeat in the nation? Similar paradoxes of comparative happiness have been explored since the dawn of modern social theory, arguably beginning with Suicide, Emile Durkheim’s 1897 monograph, which asked why Northern Europe posted higher suicide rates than Southern Europe despite being more prosperous.

If Homo economicus was indeed the basic unit of society, then the mandate of political leaders was simple: to maximize total economic output, as measured by gross national product.

Broadly speaking, there are two competing theories about societal happiness. According to one, the sources of pleasure and satisfaction are universal, and the problem is simply that they’re unevenly distributed across the globe. Followers of Durkheim, by contrast, believe that the very yardsticks by which people measure their happiness—Spanish Catholicism, say, or the American Dream—differ from society to society. Every happy place on the map is happy in its own way.

In Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery casts his lot firmly with the universalists, whose approach is in vogue these days. In Montgomery’s telling, since we’re all humans, a one-size-fits-all, well-designed city can please everyone. His breezy book recounts a five-year globe-trotting tour from one well-intentioned civic project to another: from Bogota’s bike lanes to Seattle’s light rail to Seoul’s riverside park and beyond. Along the way, he meets with leaders and planners to discuss what they’re up to and why. Most are trying to make their cities denser, greener, more sustainable, and more accessible by foot, bike, and transit. Sometimes they mention happiness research; sometimes Montgomery mentions it for them, doing his best to link their schemes to a cherry-picked selection of happiness surveys, brain chemistry studies, behavioral economics experiments, journalistic vignettes, and just-so stories from evolutionary biology. Besides identifying urban best practices ready for export, he wants to prove that sustainable development makes people feel good—that, for all of us, “the green city, the low-carbon city, and the happy city might be exactly the same destination.”

To get a sense of Montgomery’s methods, consider how he handles urban parks. He tells us that a survey commissioned by a pair of Russian artists found that the average person in America, Portugal, Kenya, and China prefers her landscape paintings to have open fields dotted with occasional trees and wildlife. He points out that when paintings of this type were installed in a California jail, it lowered guards’ heart rates and improved their memories. And he reminds us that evolutionary biologists trace our brain development to a shared past on the African savanna, a landscape dotted with occasional trees and wildlife. From this spotty evidence, are we to conclude that savanna-style-meadows-and-shade-trees parks, like Central Park in Manhattan and Hyde Park in London, are the most appealing parks in the world? Montgomery leaves us with the vague sense that, indeed, these landscapes (provided they’re designed correctly, with adequate biodiversity) are most apt to draw people in and boost their happiness, no matter where in the world one lives.

But what about the formal gardens of Versailles, outside Paris, with their ordered hedgerows and axial reflecting pools? Or Saguaro National Park, in Tucson, with its desert scrub and cacti? Are they just relics of a pitiful age before we understood the science of happiness, or knew what we actually liked best? Montgomery’s book doesn’t take seriously the possibility that cities, or cultures, are compelling precisely because they’re not all the same.

THE RECENT FLURRY OF happiness research so dear to Montgomery’s heart was spurred by a desire to find a replacement for the theories of neoclassical economics. Neoclassical models, which dominated 20th-century economics, assume that every human being in every society in every era is a perfectly rational utility-maximizing calculator. Economists called him Homo economicus, and evolutionary psychologists chimed in with accounts of how he was shaped by the pressures of natural selection on the African plains.

If Homo economicus was indeed the basic unit of society, then the mandate of political leaders was simple: to maximize total economic output, as measured by gross national product. But Homo economicus was surprisingly hard to find in the real world. In social science experiments, humans proved surprisingly generous; the only people who consistently behaved in the monomaniacal way neoclassical economists predicted they should were sociopaths—and investment bankers.

Beginning in the 1970s, happiness theorists attempting to upend the neoclassical model started talking about Homo hedonicus: humans as seekers not of wealth but of happiness, something poverty can stifle but money can’t buy. Economists started trying to measure how happy people were, and political leaders like Bhutan’s fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, and Bogota’s mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, proposed replacing Gross National Product with Gross National Happiness. Recently, this approach has found a foothold among the Chinese Communist elite, spurred by Tsinghua University economist Hu Angang’s call for “a national happiness index with Chinese characteristics.” After all, the thinking goes, if a nation grows rich by destroying its natural environment or overworking its residents to the point of misery, doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Besides, maybe wealth doesn’t lead straight to happiness: In an influential 1974 paper, the economist Richard Easterlin noted that, around the world, reported happiness was not correlated with national income per person. Surveys show residents of Nicaragua, for example, to be happier than Americans, despite earning, on average, only a tenth of their income.

The pursuit of happiness might seem a sensible counterweight to the richer-means-better approach to governing. But measuring happiness isn’t nearly as straightforward as measuring economic output. Even setting aside the complications of culture, happiness studies have no universally accepted methodology. Accordingly, their results are all over the place, even in studies of a single locale. A 2009 analysis of survey data, published in Science, declared Louisiana the happiest state in the nation, while a 2012 Gallup-Healthways poll ranked it 34th for “emotional well-being.” More recently, news outlets around the world reported on a study that identified Louisiana as the least happy state of all, based on the frequency of “happy words” in local Twitter tweets, as analyzed by a “hedonometer” program developed at the University of Vermont.

Confusing matters further, a Brookings Institution study released this year concluded that, across the world, happiness and national wealth are directly related after all, calling into question the premise that Gross National Happiness is a meaningful departure from Gross National Product.

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX)


In short, the field is an interesting muddle at best, with even the most basic questions far from settled. For Montgomery, though, there is no muddle: Happiness is definitively measurable, its causes identifiable—and identical worldwide. Within his field of urban planning, whatever boosts happiness in one society will do the same in every society. It’s our good luck that it will also save the environment.

But Montgomery cannot explain away the facts, some of which, even in studies he cites, undermine his arguments. At one point he is forced to acknowledge that residents of his model cities—his native Vancouver, with its ambitious program to add density without destroying its natural vistas, and London, with its traffic-reducing congestion tax—are in fact less happy than their countrymen in “backwater” cities that have done without such innovations. Elsewhere he cites surveys showing that residents of the most environmentally friendly and transit-oriented neighborhoods—the high-rise apartment clusters of the downtown cores—report being unhappier than people in outlying neighborhoods. Most damning of all, Montgomery admits that Americans in cities report being less satisfied than Americans in suburbs—an inconsistency he unconvincingly tries to explain away by blaming the difficulties of city life on visitors from the sprawl. It is car-driving suburbanites, he writes, whose “horns ... wake Brooklynites at dawn,” and who careen through Los Angeles neighborhoods, rendering them too dangerous for children to play in. This strained defense recalls 17th-century attempts to defend the geocentric model of the universe, no matter what astronomers saw in their new telescopes. Rather than letting exceptions pile up, why not just ditch the underlying theory?

NONE OF THIS SHOULD be taken as undermining the case for smart growth—just the prospect of justifying it with happiness studies. There are all sorts of reasonable arguments for the types of cities Montgomery likes. Building fewer cars, better public transit, fewer McMansions, and more apartment buildings would undoubtedly help the environment. It would also create spaces more socially equitable than sprawling neighborhoods that exclude anyone too young, too old, or too poor to own a car. So why rely on an appeal to quantifiable happiness?

Montgomery hints that his reasons were more tactical than intellectual. He has no faith, he writes, that people will change their behavior on ethical grounds. “Guilt and shame and fear do not lead us into action,” he writes. Only by convincing people that “sustainable life can be more pleasurable” can we hope to build better cities. The cultural universalism is a bonus: Not only will fixing the world cheer us up, but we’ll only have to do it once.

Perhaps his book is secretly a noble lie, à la Plato’s Republic, meant to inspire ethical action through duplicitous means. In America, where 40 percent of people profess to “love” their car, densification and congestion pricing would likely reduce the happiness of many. But if people are too selfish to do what’s right, Montgomery seems to argue, let’s tell them it’s in their narrow, hedonistic self-interest to do so—no matter whether that’s true. It would be nice if it worked. In America, however, we’ll probably go down smiling.