AP

For one thing, low rents.

A city's overall level of happiness can certainly change on short notice. Think Cleveland last Thursday, before LeBron James announced he was returning to play basketball there, and Cleveland last Friday, after he said he was coming home. And yet people still moved to Cleveland while LeBron played for Miami, just as they still moved to Detroit despite the bankruptcy and the foreclosures, just as they still move to any number of U.S. cities sometimes characterized as unhappy places.

The question of why people willingly move to so-called "unhappy" cities is at the center of a new working paper updated today, from a group of researchers led by urban economist Edward Glaeser of Harvard. Their answer boils down to this: the price is right. In the past, cities now considered unhappy places might have compensated their residents with high wages. That connection has faded, recently replaced with another form of compensation, in the form of low rents. The researchers conclude:

Today, the residents of cities that declined aren't receiving higher nominal wages, but they do seem to be paying lower rents. As such, the unhappiness of America’s declining cities may have been compensated with higher incomes in the past and lower housing costs today.

To reach that conclusion, first the researchers mapped metro area happiness across the country. Using a large national survey on well-being conducted by the CDC, they found bands of unhappiness in the Midwest, out toward the Great Plains, and in select parts of California, the Northeast, and the South. More happiness, meanwhile, was found in metro areas in the West and Rockies, some northern parts of the Midwest, and sprinkled through parts of the rural South.

Since the map isn't interactive, we'll give some key data points. Some of the happiest cities measured by Glaeser and company were Charlottesville, Virginia; Rochester, Minnesota; Lafayette, Louisiana; Naples, Florida; and Flagstaff, Arizona—in keeping with a classic theory that people like to go where it's warm. Some of the least happy places were Scranton and Erie, Pennsylvania; South Bend and Gary, Indiana; New York, Pittsburgh, and Detroit.

These relationships held true even after controlling for income and employment, and after considering factors like education, race, and age. One common theme emerged: "places with lower levels of population and income growth are less happy." And it's not that the high-growth cities were especially happy; it was more that the low-growth places were measurably unhappy.

What's more, these unhappy places tended to have unhappy histories. Glaeser and collaborators found that the connection between place and happiness held true whether they took into account long-term residents or those who just moved there. In other words, it's not that these places were once happy and then became unhappy after just a few years of decline. Rather, in the eyes of the researchers, these are and have long been "unhappy cities."

So why would people move to any of these places? Here's where the researchers believe economic factors come into play. If people truly prioritized happiness over everything else in life, they might never move to an unhappy city. But if happiness were just one factor among many that people considered when making decisions about where to move, other reasons might outweigh happiness (or at least counterbalance any expected decline in happiness).

In the past, that reason might have been high wages. Looking at the 1940 Census, the researchers found that residents of cities that subsequently declined were well compensated at that time by their wages. This connection between wages and decline didn't remain true as of the 2000 Census. Instead, today, residents of unhappy and declining cities seem to be compensated with lower rents. (There are some high-rent low-happiness places, like New York and Boston, where higher wages still reign.)

Anecdotally, at least, the rent theory seems to hold true for some people. There's no universal reason why people move somewhere, of course, but a Business Insider report from last summer found that many new Detroit residents were attracted by the city's extremely low rents. In a Boston Globe editorial from May, Glaeser argued that it's good for people to move to unhappy cities, because these places still have much to offer American society:

More pleasure is always better than less, holding everything else equal. And misery in America’s declining cities should be something to resist. Yet we should also be glad individuals don't always choose to maximize happiness. If we were all to leave Boston to move to happier places, the world would be left a little less innovative — probably making someone somewhere else a bit more miserable. Then everyone would be a little less happy.

Caveats abound with a study like this. For starters, happiness is extremely difficult to measure, with one person defining the feeling much differently from another. Adding to the complexity, there's been no consistent happiness metric issued to American people over the last century; for this work, the researchers cobbled together results from a variety of happiness surveys and reports. And all the conclusions are inferred from statistics, not causal experiments. 

Additionally, there's no reason to think that people check happiness surveys before choosing to move somewhere. Even if they did, people are also terrible at predicting how happy they'll be in the future, meaning they might think they can move to an unhappy place and still be happy. The connection that Glaeser and company draw between 1940 wages and declining cities is also questionable; just because a city subsequently declined doesn't mean it was an unhappy place at the time. (Indeed, the high wages might have caused the decline.)

Last but not least, just because a city has been unhappy before doesn't mean sadness is written in its geographic DNA. Times can change. Just ask Cleveland.

 

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