No, New York Is Not the Unhappiest City in America

Categories: Studies

National Bureau of Economic Research
A map of adjusted life satisfaction, after controlling for demographics and individual income.
Last week the National Bureau of Economic Research published a working paper, "Unhappy Cities," that was a collaboration between Harvard professor Edward Glaeser, Vancouver School of Economics professor Joshua Gottlieb and Harvard doctoral student Oren Ziv.

Researchers found that differences in a person's level of happiness depended on the city that person lives in, regardless of whether he or she has lived there his or her entire life or just relocated. The report ranked metropolitan areas in terms of happiness and, since rankings (no matter how arbitrary) are one thing reporters and readers just can't resist, "New York Is the Unhappiest American City" is the headline that emerged.

It's worth pointing out that the study doesn't say that New York City is the unhappiest city in the United States--it says its the fourth unhappiest city, only slightly unhappier than Pittsburgh.

Here's the order that actually appears in the study, along with each city's adjusted happiness rate ("adjusted" in this case means that researchers controlled for demographics).

Scranton, PA, -0.154
Erie, PA, - 0.147
South Bend, IN, -0.138
New York, NY, -0.123
Pittsburgh, PA, -0.115

If you re-rank the list using a new adjusted happiness rate that controls not just for demographics but also for income, only then does New York come out on bottom, followed by South Bend, Indiana; Erie, Pennsylvania; Detroit, Michigan and Gary, Indiana. (When researchers adjusted for neither demographics nor income, New York ranked second unhappiest after Gary.)

Income, it turns out, is actually pretty important, but we'll get to that later. First, let's talk about how happiness itself is defined in the study because its an interesting question in itself -- how does one measure happiness? In average endorphin levels? In minutes spent smiling? (In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cuuups of coffee?)

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