Ben Schiller is a New York-based staff writer for Co.Exist, and also contributes to the FT and Yale e360. He used to edit a European management magazine, and worked as a reporter in San Francisco, Prague and Brussels
Sorry, city dwellers. Suburban counties tend to be happiest (as long as you don't have to get in your car to go to work).
The United States was founded so people could pursue happiness, but some places seem to do a better job of it than others. There's a big difference between the happiest and least happy places in the country, according to new research.
Led by Stephan Goetz, a professor at Penn State, the study looks at the number of "poor mental health days" reported per county—that is, the number of days people said they were in a negative mood. The "least happy" communities reported up to 8.3 days a month, compared to less than half-a-day for the happiest. (See the results plotted on the map here, with the highest number of mental health days in red and the lowest in green).
What's behind the variation? Goetz says suburban counties tend to be happier than urban or rural ones, and that non-white counties tend to be happier than whiter ones. People were also happier when they commuted less, moved homes less often, and lived in places deemed to have more closely-knit communities (higher levels of "social capital").
For example, a 1% increase in the share of non-whites in a county reduced the average number of poor mental health days by 0.08%—which is actually a larger number than it might seem, when you consider the whole country. "After controlling for other factors including income, educational attainment, place of residence, commuting time, social capital, there is still a residual, unexplained factor that leaves whites a little bit less happy than non-whites," Goetz says via email. "One possible factor that may explain this difference could be religious adherence, to the extent that it varies between whites and non-whites."
Goetz says suburbanites can have the best of both worlds. They can be close to their jobs but also near enough to activities downtown. They can avoid being around a lot of other people, but then they're not too far away either. However, the effect is dulled by commute times: The research found the longer people spend traveling, the less happy they feel.
The results are based on a large-scale phone survey (using the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System) and come from a six-year average of data from 2002 to 2008. The researchers deliberately chose a period before the recent recession, fearing that might skew the results. The study is the first to look at the factors behind mental health at a county level, the researchers say.
Interestingly, Goetz says poverty is a bigger factor in making people unhappy than inequality, despite the prominence of the latter issue recently. "Recently, inequality has received considerable attention from the public. As a result, the issue of poverty has received less attention," he says. "Our work suggests that policies directed at reducing poverty will go further in terms of reducing poor mental health than will policies directed at reducing income inequality."
Goetz argues that the level of down-days is an important economic indicator as unhappy counties tend to be less productive. The real benefit of the study is that we now know where people are unhappy and what might be driving that.