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Big cities trade happiness for money: survey shows

If you’re feeling unhappy with the daily grind of city life, you’re not alone. In fact, residents across some of America’s largest cities - including New York - are feeling the same way according to a new survey.

A new research paper, published using data from the National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER) and co-authored by Harvard Kennedy School Professor Edward Glaeser, is shedding light on the nation’s unhappiest - and happiest - cities. Residents of bigger cities, like New York, are trading happiness for wages and higher levels of satisfaction, according to the study. In fact, the paper came to the conclusion that the unhappiest cities are willingly choosing to be less happy in exchange for higher incomes or lower housing costs. They are choosing money over happiness.

The study showed the most unhappy cities in the country:

1. New York, NY
2. Pittsburgh, PA
3. Louisville, KY
4. Milwaukee, WI
5. Detroit, MI
6. Indianapolis, IN
7. St. Louis, MO
8. Las Vegas, NV
9. Buffalo, NY
10. Philadelphia, PA

Professor Glaeser joined Yahoo Finance to shed some light about the data (which is predisposed to natural skews in the way certain geographies admit to happiness). In particular he tells me “no self respecting New Yorker is going to tell an interviewer that they are completely satisfied with their life. Culture certainly has some part of it.”

The unhappiness survey study took into account NBER data combined with a 2010 U.S. Centers for Disease Control survey on American life satisfaction. It adjusted results for a variety of factors including income, demographics, employment status, housing costs and other factors to rank the nation’s cities.

One connection clearly drawn is that residents of declining cities appear less happy than other Americans. This would apply to cities like Detroit, Michigan and Scranton, Pennsylvania. “The largest correlate that we found across cities with happiness is, in fact, urban decline. So declining cities - the places that were less happy - had been losing population relative to the places that were more happy,” says Glaeser. “It appears that the unhappiness predated the decline. It is not that Scranton is unhappy because it was declining, but that it was declining because it was unhappy.”

Another conclusion of the study is that the unhappiest are deliberately choosing to be so and are compensated for it. Glaeser writes about New Yorkers and residents of other unhappy cities that they are “willing to sacrifice both happiness and life satisfaction if the price is right...indeed, the residents of unhappier metropolitan areas today do receive higher real wages—presumably as compensation for their misery.”

What about the happiest places?  Louisiana lays claim to 4 of the happiest cities the study shows.  

1. Charlottesville, VA
2. Rochester, MN
3. Lafayette, LA
4. Naples, FL
5. Baton Rouge, LA
6. Flagstaff, AZ
7. Shreveport-Bossier City, LA
8. Houma, LA
9. Corpus Christi, TX
10. Provo-Orem, UT

So why doesn’t everyone just pick up and move to Louisiana to live happily ever after? In Glaeser’s opinion, happiness isn’t everything. He says “you should think of happiness as not the be all and end all but just one part of what people value. They’re often willing to put up with a little less happiness in order to get something else - like having great colleagues that make you more productive or higher wages.”

In the study he finds that “the desires for happiness and life satisfaction do not uniquely drive human ambitions.” Americans are quite understandably willing to sacrifice both happiness and life satisfaction if the price is right.

Press on, unhappy New Yorkers, press on.

Shibani Joshi is the creator of www.ShibaniOnTech.com and can be followed on Twitter @shibanijoshi