The Great Urban-Rural Happiness Debate

Some numbers say small-town folk are happier than city folk, but the true story is much more complicated

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George McLellan smiles while weeding the vegetable garden at his farm in Unity, New Hampshire. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

The subtitle of Ed Glaesar's recent book, Triumph of the City, states that urban areas make people richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier. A pair of researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas aren't so sure about that last one. In a recent paper published in the journal Urban Geography, Brian Berry and Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn contend that statistical data show a clear urban-rural happiness gradient — in other words, as they move from small town to suburb to city, they find a gradual decrease in subjective well-being:

There are many benefits of big-city living; high levels of happiness are not among them.

The researchers explore some of the theoretical underpinnings of urban unhappiness — referring often to Louis Wirth's 1938 paper, "Urbanism as a Way of Life," [PDF] which cites "the relative absence of intimate personal acquaintanceship," as one of many potential reasons city residents should be less happy — before moving on to recent data. Their primary resource is the General Social Survey, a broad sweep of social information collected regularly since 1972. By mapping responses to the G.S.S. question on happiness with data on place of residence, the researchers find that, between 1972 and 2008, "happiness has been lowest in the nation's largest cities and has consistently been at its highest levels in small towns and rural areas":

Over the years scholars have built a good deal of evidence supporting the existence of this urban-rural happiness gradient. To help their case, Berry and Okulicz-Kozaryn reference a great deal of it. One fairly recent study of the Los Angeles area found that suburban residents feel less vulnerable and scared of crime than people in the city, which could have an indirect impact on life satisfaction. Other research from several years back found that poor African Americans in the city had lower psychological well-being than those in rural areas. More recent work in senior homes in Iowa found more depressive symptoms in city residents than in those who live in a rural neighborhood.

But in making their point the authors overlook an equally significant body of research that shows the matter is far from settled. In the psychological well-being study noted above, for instance, researchers also found that poor whites had a higher well-being in cities than in rural areas, and that urban and rural poor showed no difference overall in happiness or depression — results that Berry and Okulicz-Kozaryn fail to mention. They also cite a 1992 study of the Detroit metro area in support of their happiness gradient that, upon closer inspection, concludes the opposite: people in the suburbs were "no more likely" than those in the city to express satisfaction with the quality of their lives, according to the Detroit report.

The oversights don't end there. The authors briefly reference, but fail to elaborate on, a 2008 paper [PDF] that lists several recent research studies that failed to confirm the urban-rural gradient. This 2008 study also pointed out that many urban happiness studies control for income, which can provide "a deceptive appearance of greater rural well-being," since income and happiness are typically (though not always) positively correlated. The final caveat worth mentioning is the G.S.S. happiness question itself. The item calls for one of only three responses — very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy — that reduce all the complexities of happiness to an absurdly simple multiple choice.

Having said all that, Berry and Okulicz-Kozaryn certainly understand that their proposed gradient is far from straightforward. For one thing, their own previous research has noticed that in some parts of the world, namely rapidly developing cities in Asia, well-being was relatively higher in big cities than elsewhere. In the new study they also perform some additional tests that ultimately undermine the gradient and lead them to conclude that "its foundations are more complex." When they added data on ancestry into their analysis, for instance, the gradient dulled substantially; when they factored in race to the analysis, it dulled some more; and when they considered both ancestry and race, the gradient disappeared.

In other words, happiness is complicated. Wherever you live.

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