Simanaitis Says

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A RECENT item making the rounds identifies the happiest and unhappiest cities in America. See, for example, and Superficially, it sounds like one of those social-network personality games: “Which body part are you?” Yet, the news is also based on an extensive study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.


Despite its name, the NBER is a private nonprofit, not a government agency. Founded in 1920, the organization undertakes and disseminates unbiased economic research among public policymakers, business professionals and academe.

Most of NBER publications are deep and arcane, on highly technical economic subjects. From time to time, a study gets a lot wider play—such as this recent working paper, “Unhappy Cities,” by Edward L. Glaser, Harvard University; Joshua D. Gottlieb, University of British Columbia; and Oren Ziv, Harvard. The full report can be downloaded for $5 from the NBER website,; an abstract is available free of charge.


Happiest and unhappiest cities in the U.S. Image based on one in Huffington Post, July 21, 2014; data from “Unhappy Cities,” NBER.

“Unhappy Cities” is a meta study; that is, a study of earlier studies. It applies statistical methods in analyzing data from large national surveys of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, the National Surveys of Family & Households, various Gallup polls and other demographic research.

Though ominously titled, the BRFSS is a straightforward survey conducted annually by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its primary purpose is to assess risk factors for various diseases, though Glaser and his colleagues focused on a single question, the one that asked, “In general, how satisfied are you with your life?”

To assess changes over time, similar queries were analyzed from two waves of the National Survey of Family & Households, 1987 – 1988 and 1992 – 1994. The NSFH asked, “First taking things all together, how would you say things are these days?”


Estimated metropolitan and rural adjusted happiness. Positive values represent happiness; negative, unhappiness. Image from “Unhappy Cities,” NBER.

Glaser and his colleagues repeatedly stress that they’re reporting correlation, not causality. That is, how data match up in some way—not why one aspect may or may not lead to another.

I’ve previously offered an item on this difference between correlation and cause/effect ( It contains an example worth repeating: There’s an excellent matchup between the salaries of teachers in a school district and that district’s sales of alcohol.

Amusing though it might be to imagine all those sotted educators, the truth likely lies elsewhere: Both teachers’ salaries and alcohol sales are logical effects of a school district’s affluence.

In “Unhappy Cities,” the researchers study degrees of correlation between the surveyed assessments of well-being and various urban demographics, things like population change, education level and marital status. In using earlier NSFH results, they assess how these relationships change with time.

Glaser and his colleagues also offer philosophical aspects of happiness in citing Socrates and Aristotle through Sts. Augustine and Aquinas to modern views. A continuing question is how the concept of happiness relates to the economic principle of utility, of satisfying one’s needs or wants.

Their study of earlier NSFH and Gallup data versus more recent BRFSS numbers suggests that declining cities were even unhappier in the past than they are today. The researchers write, “These results are hardly definitive, but taken together they suggest that urban unhappiness is not exclusively recent.”

Wife Dottie reminds me that Abe Lincoln summed matters up succinctly when he said, “Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014

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