Does being named one of the unhappiest cities lead to more unhappiness in that place?

WalletHub has a new ranking of the happiest cities in the United States. Here are the top ranked and lowest ranked cities:

Fremont, Calif., took the top spot with Plano, Texas; San Jose, Calif.; Irvine, Calif., and Madison, Wis., rounding out the top five…

The unhappiest city on the list? That’d be Detroit, Mich., the report said, followed by Charleston, W. Va.; Toledo, Ohio; Huntington, W. Va., and Cleveland, Ohio.

While it is easy to get bogged down in how the rankings were made – and WalletHub describes their methodology – I have a different question this time. Not all rankings of places include the worst places or less desirable places. What is the purpose or outcome of showing all the locations?

One reason could be simply wanting to share all the data. If you calculate all the rankings, why not publish all the results? To see how the rankings worked out, people might expect to see everything. Contrast this with the approach of Money where they show the top 100 places to live. On this list, many places are left out while only the best are highlighted.

In terms of outcomes, what does this list do the cities at the bottom of the list? Three of the cities are in the Rust Belt and two others are in West Virginia which faces similar issues. I am not sure these rankings would be a surprise to the leaders of these cities but it still could be demoralizing.

Realistically, are there ways that cities toward the bottom of the list could enact changes that would significantly change the rankings over a short period? A rankings list could motivate places, leaders, and residents. Yet, it is difficult to make it up rankings list and turn around reputations that are well established.

I wonder if such lists simply serve to add to the shame or negative reputations of the places at the bottom. The data may be more complete but how does this help Detroit or the others at the bottom?

“Distinctive behaviors of the actively religious” across countries

Pew analyzed international data and found that individuals who are actively religious have different behaviors than others in their nation in a number of countries:

DistinctiveBehaviorsoftheActivelyReligious.png

It appears that religiosity affects certain areas more consistently – particularly smoking, voting, happiness, and participation in nonreligious organizations – than others even as these relationships between religiosity and health, well-being, and prosocial behaviors can differ across countries. Of course, why some of these relationships and not others exist, even in the same categories like the example that the more religious do not smoke but religiosity has no impact on obesity or exercise, gets more complicated…

“What if the greatest threat to capitalism…is simply lack of enthusiasm and activity?”

In a long excerpt from The Happiness Industry, William Davies explores a real threat to capitalism: a lack of happiness.

What if the greatest threat to capitalism, at least in the liberal West, is simply lack of enthusiasm and activity? What if, rather than inciting violence or explicit refusal, contemporary capitalism is just met with a yawn? From a political point of view, this would be somewhat disappointing. Yet it is no less of an obstacle for the longer-term viability of capitalism. Without a certain level of commitment on the part of employees, businesses run into some very tangible problems, which soon show up in their profits.

This fear has gripped the imaginations of managers and policymakers in recent years, and not without reason. Various studies of employee engagement have highlighted the economic costs of allowing workers to become mentally withdrawn from their jobs. Gallup conducts frequent and wide-ranging studies in this area and has found that only 13 per cent of the global workforce is properly “engaged,” while around 20 percent of employees in North America and Europe are “actively disengaged.” They estimate that active disengagement costs the U.S. economy as much as $550 billion a year. Disengagement is believed to manifest itself in absenteeism, sickness and—sometimes more problematic—presenteeism, in which employees come into the office purely to be physically present. A Canadian study suggests over a quarter of workplace absence is due to general burnout, rather than sickness.

Perhaps people should turn their attention away from the NSA and toward their employers:

Rather than the rise of alternative corporate forms, we are now witnessing the discreet return of the scientific management style, only now with even greater scientific scrutiny of bodies, movement, and performance. The front line in worker performance evaluation has shifted into bodily-monitoring devices, heart-rate monitoring, and sharing of real-time health data, for analysis of stress risks. Strange to say, the notion of what represents a good worker has gone full circle since the 1870s, from the origins of ergonomic fatigue studies, through psychology, psychosomatic medicine and back to the body once more. Perhaps the managerial cult of optimization just needs something tangible to cling onto.

Studying happiness (and related concepts like life satisfaction and well-being) is its own academic subfield – see earlier posts here and here. And governments are very interested in well-being as well with measures like Gross National Happiness from Bhutan and regular reports about the happiest countries on earth.

All of this reminds me of sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s research on “emotion work” in relationships to keep them going and “emotion labor” in jobs that require a consistent cheerfulness or happiness as part of the routine. This would include a lot of service and retail jobs where employees regularly interact with customers and need to present an upbeat image. This is not easy to do and can be quite draining.

And what might Marx say about this – capitalism goes out not with a revolution but rather with indifference and apathy?

“Having…a bigger McMansion…probably won’t make you happier. At least, not in the long term.”

A journalist discusses keeping up with the Joneses and includes this bit involving McMansions:

So what does this mean for the drive to keep up with the Joneses? It means that having a nicer car, a bigger McMansion, a greener lawn or even the latest iPhone probably won’t make you happier. At least, not in the long term.

How many suburban status symbols can you include in one sentence? While this piece summarizes the detrimental effects of spending in order to keep up a wealthier reference group around us, this reference to McMansions is not unusual. Here, the McMansion stands in for a pattern of excessive consumption, a consumer good that isn’t necessary, requires long-term debt, and doesn’t really lead to long-term well being (at least such satisfaction based on comparisons with others).

Perhaps the more scandalous suggestion here is that the iPhone could function in the same way as a McMansion. The iPhone costs a lot less, is much more common (at least 500 million units have been sold – imagine that number of McMansions), and might even enhance sociability (as opposed to the McMansions emphasis on private space). The iPhone is a status symbol in its own right. But, the iPhone doesn’t attract the same level of criticism…

Are NFL fans now better off with all the draft knowledge they can access?

The NFL draft process has been drawn out even further this year and it leads to an interesting question: is a better-informed fan a more-in-control fan?

For many Americans, football fandom is a knowledge contest, an anxious dedication to information gathering that drives us to consume the NFL’s human-resources wing as entertainment. Last year, more than 7.9 million of us watched the draft and another 7.3 million viewed some portion of the scouting combine. This year, the draft moved from April to May, a transition attributed to a scheduling glitch: Radio City Music Hall, the draft’s venue in recent years, booked a Rockettes Easter special during the NFL’s big weekend. But it’s a favor, really: We need more time for recreational panic, more time for our 11-year-olds to prognosticate with radio hosts…

When Mayock started his work, most information about prospects was relegated to team officials and media members. But now, anyone could develop informed opinions about someone like Landry. Anyone who wants to can study six of his games and learn about his perceived value on mock draft sites. Walter Cherepinsky, the founder of one such site, tells me it gets 40 million visits per month. (One of his recent mocks has Landry going to the Carolina Panthers with the 92nd selection.) For the most committed students, there are draft guides such as Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio, more than 1,200 pages about offensive prospects. Waldman writes that Landry blocks and runs routes like a reserve player, but he catches passes like an NFL star.

While the adage tells us knowledge is power, though, it’s less clear how all of this information empowers draft-obsessed fans. That 11-year-old from the sports talk show wanted his team to select a receiver, but wanting that or having an argument in favor of it won’t make it so. What erudition of this sort provides is a sense of autonomy, in terms of identity, a guard against power abused. NFL insiders tend to whisper the same general stat: that one-third of the league’s general managers have no business overseeing personnel decisions—they’re either misguided in the way they evaluate players or they don’t bother to put in the requisite research. Draft savvy, then, lets fans separate their outcomes (the success of their favored college prospects) from those of their favorite teams (the players chosen by their teams and the team’s outcome on the field); fans can timestamp their opinions and later say, “I told you so.”

But does this kind of autonomy relieve fans’ helplessness, or does it make them feel more like pawns beholden to the real draft-day outcomes they want to control but can’t? Let’s say you’re sure, after months of research, your team should use its third-round pick on a quarterback, but the team instead drafts a punter—a punter—and the quarterback selected five slots later goes on to win a Super Bowl within two seasons. Besides a conniption, this could also give you a grudge to unleash on team executives, message board commenters, and media members who disagree with your football opinions.

The evidence seems clear: the draft is popular and the NFL can afford to drag it out when people keep watching. But, do people really enjoy it? More broadly in sports, if fans know even more about potential players (college, minor leagues, developmental leagues, overseas prospects, etc.), does this lead to feeling more in control?

Having more information is generally seen as a good thing in today’s world. The more input you can gather, the better. Yet, this doesn’t necessarily lead to better outcomes or more perceived control. (Read The Paradox of Choice for a good introduction.) I would argue that much of the appeal of sports is the unpredictably, the odd things that can happen on a playing surface at any point. All the information in the world can’t easily explain some of these events – and would we want it to or would we rather see unpredictable things happen in games?

The draft is a good example of this unpredictability and how we might perceive information as a way to limit this. Think about all of the mock drafts. All of the talking heads. Stretching out the draft even longer. Yet, there are still things that happen on draft day that are hard to predict, even for all the experts. (I’m particularly intrigued by recent mock drafts that incorporate more complicated draft-day trades.) Assessing the results of drafts can take years or even decades. Sports Illustrated had a recent story about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers making a disastrous pick in the 1980s that led to 10+ years of ineptitude – but this wasn’t visible for years.

All together, football players make choices, teams make choices, fans respond to all of this with more or less information, and it all collides in a “sports experience.” I suspect sports fans don’t really want to know everything (stronger predictive abilities would reduce the uncertainty about outcomes) even if they often want to immerse themselves in the sports experience. At some point, the return on having more and more sports knowledge likely decreases enjoyment though this curve could easily differ by person.

Architecture to improve your health and increase your happiness

Check out this guide from the American Institute of Architects on how certain designs can improve your health. A few examples:

Serenity Now: The spaces architects create can have a soothing and calming effect that reduces stress through mitigation of excessive noise, allowing visual connections beyond the building or within it, and providing access to natural daylight. Research indicates that short-term exposure to noise may negatively affect mental  well-being; prolonged exposures may exacerbate other issues, including aggression…
Stairs Can Save Lives: Well-integrated and -designed staircases can increase physical activity and cardiovascular health. A Harvard study found that men who climbed at least 20 floors per week had a 20 percent lower risk of stroke or death from all causes. New York City’s Active Design Guidelines recommends stair-design strategies that may increase physical activity.
Toxic Gas: Off-gassing from high VOC (volatile organic compound) materials can trigger respiratory health problems such as asthma or allergies in both users of buildings and the people who build them. A child that sleeps in a bedroom with fumes from water-based paints and solvents is two to four times likely to develop allergies or asthma…
Eyes on the Street: Street-level doors and windows encourage walkability and foster a strong sense of community, which aids people’s sense of environmental safety and broader community health. In a Bronx, N.Y., neighborhood where crime is prevalent, the Betances Community Center, designed by Stephen Yablon, AIA, illuminates a central staircase and gymnasium in natural light, wrapping its ground-level façade in windows as well. These transparencies give the building a welcoming presence and offer views to a public park across the street.

A lot to have to consider when designing and constructing a building. It is interesting that a number of these suggestions cross multiple areas of need. For example, stairs are necessary for safety if elevators stop operating. Toxic gas from VOC materials is a green issue. Eyes on the street is a classic phrase from Jane Jacobs to describe the kind of vibrant street life that helps social control without the need for formal policing. But, to also pitch these as health issues is likely a nice marketing tool. Not only can architects design a well-functioning building, they can improve people’s health outcomes.

In pointing to this story, Curbed provides a quote that architects can even do more: they “are often the architects of our happiness and unhappiness as well.” What can’t architects do?

Don’t think that buying a McMansion will make you happy

A new book titled Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending suggests buying a nice home does not lead to greater happiness:

What could possibly be more satisfying than ditching that old starter home you and your spouse moved into during your broke newlywed years?

Two studies cited in “Happy Money” prove otherwise.

When researchers followed groups of German homeowners five years after they moved into new homes, they all wound up saying they were happier with their newer house. But there was one problem: They weren’t any happier with their lives. The same was true in a study of Ohio homeowners in which it turned out they weren’t any happier with their lives than renters.

“Even in the heart of middle America, housing seems to play a surprisingly small role in the successful pursuit of happiness,” Dunn and Norton write. “If the largest material purchase most of us will ever make provides no detectable benefit for our overall happiness, then it may be time to rethink our fundamental assumptions about how we use money.”

Regardless of whether someone owns a McMansion or not, this goes against a lot of the American Dream. Critics argue McMansions aren’t great purchases because of their poor design, environmental impact, poor community life, and other issues, yet people have continued to buy larger houses in recent decades. At the same time, some of these critics would tell McMansion owners to buy homes that better fit their individual needs. What unites these approaches to homes is the idea that people are better off having purchased a home. Perhaps they are in the eyes of society – indeed, people once argued homeownership would keep people from taking an interest in communism. But, if this research holds up, then perhaps we should retire the argument that individuals will be more satisfied as homeowners and stick to making a civic or community-oriented pitch for homeownership.

Moving poor families to better neighborhoods doesn’t improve jobs, education but does boost happiness

A new study suggests happiness is one of the primary benefits of poor families moving to better neighborhoods:

When thousands of poor families were given federal housing subsidies in the early 1990s to move out of impoverished neighborhoods, social scientists expected the experience of living in more prosperous communities would pay off in better jobs, higher incomes and more education.

That did not happen. But more than 10 years later, the families’ lives had improved in another way: They reported being much happier than a comparison group of poor families who were not offered subsidies to move, a finding that was published on Thursday in the journal Science.

And using the gold standard of social surveys — the General Social Survey, in which researchers have questioned thousands of Americans of all income levels going back to the 1970s — researchers even quantified how much happier the families were. The improvement was equal to the level of life satisfaction of someone whose annual income was $13,000 more a year, said Jens Ludwig, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago and the lead author of the study…

“Mental health and subjective well-being are very important,” said William Julius Wilson, a sociology professor at Harvard whose 1987 book “The Truly Disadvantaged” pioneered theory about concentrated poverty. “If you are not feeling well, it’s going to affect everything — your employment, relations with your family.”

This seems to fit with findings from other studies looking at programs like the Gautreaux Program in Chicago or the Moving to Opportunity program that took place in a few big cities. The children of these movers/participants may have better jobs, incomes, and educations down the road but there is not much of an immediate payoff in these areas.

It is too bad Wilson doesn’t go further with his comments. What exactly does better well-being translate into? Improved or more stable family life? Better social relations? Could improved well-being translate into better jobs and higher education down the road?

A Costa Rican explains why the country’s #1 ratings in the Happiness Index is due to its culture

The Happy Planet Index puts Costa Rica at number one in the world. A Costa Rican first describes what makes up the index and then how Costa Rican culture led to the top ranking:

Have you ever heard of the Happy Planet Index? As a Costa Rican, I hear about it quite a lot. Both the HPI, a project of the New Economics Foundation, and the lesser-known World Database of Happiness, assembled by a Dutch sociologist, put Costa Rica at the top of the rankings. This officially makes Costa Rica the most content country on the planet. (For once, we’re first in the world at something other than potholes per capita.)

The HPI is calculated from a combination of three factors: life expectancy, self-reported well-being, and ecological footprint. Thus, according to its own website, the HPI measures “how many long and happy lives [countries] produce per unit of environmental input.” That sounds like a mouthful at first, but once you think it through for a bit the concept seems to make sense. Traditional measures of wellbeing, such as GDP per capita, simply measure output. They don’t take into account environmental devastation brought about by industrialization or unhappiness stemming from social or economic inequality. The HPI, on the other hand, rewards countries with healthy, satisfied citizens for living within their ecological means. Thus, the HPI tells developing countries they shouldn’t aspire to the living standards of the United States or France, but rather to the smile production of Costa Rica…

My point here is that, in Costa Rica at least, happiness seems to stem partly from culture. It’s not at all controversial from an economic viewpoint to suggest a link between happiness and culture, and this is somewhat validated by the fact that five of the top ten countries in the latest HPI ranking are located in Central America, a relatively small and homogeneous region. One of those, El Salvador, has the highest murder rate in the world, and another, Nicaragua, displays levels of poverty one would expect from a war-ravaged Sub-Saharan nation. Living in either one of those (and I have for a time, in both) actually sounds like a pretty grim prospect to me, yet the HPI would have us believe that these countries are worth emulating.

Thus, we approach the core problem with the Happy Planet Index: Happiness and wellbeing are inextricably linked, but they cannot be reduced to the same thing. If Costa Rica got its act together and built better infrastructure (even at the expense of causing a little bit of damage to the environment) our wellbeing would be much higher—we would no longer have to endure endless traffic jams brought about by rock slides or sinkholes, for instance. Yet—here’s the key—our happiness wouldn’t change that much, because it’s largely a consequence of who we are as a people. Improved infrastructure is precisely the sort of advancement that shows up in measures like GDP per capita, and which the HPI ignores completely—forms of progress that undoubtedly change us for the better, though we remain as content as ever.

I’ve written about measuring happiness before (see here and here) but I don’t remember seeing this argument before about the Happy Planet Index: it is more dependent on culture than measures of material conditions. If you carry this argument to its conclusion, then great changes for the better or worse in Costa Rica wouldn’t affect people much.

I suspect it doesn’t exactly work this way. There are probably some thresholds that would affect happiness in Costa Rica and a lot of other countries. These would be similar to findings in the US that above a certain point, having more income doesn’t really change people’s happiness or well-being. There is an interplay between culture and material conditions; Marx may have suggested that culture is derived from those who control the means of production but others, including Weber, would argue that there is more of a back and forth. If the conditions changed a lot, the culture would have to respond and might change quite a bit as well.

US government (and “statistical bureaucracy”) looking to measure well-being

The federal government is looking into ways to measure well-being as a new indicator of social life:

Funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a panel of experts in psychology and economics, including Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, began convening in December to try to define reliable measures of “subjective well-being.” If successful, these could become official statistics.

But as the United States ventures into the squishy realm of feelings, statisticians will first have to define happiness and then how to measure it. Neither is a trivial matter. There is even some doubt whether people, when polled, can accurately say whether they are happy…

The panel, organized by the nonprofit National Academies, has already met with two of the key figures in the U.S. statistical bureaucracy: Robert Groves, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau, and Steve Landefeld, the director of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the federal agency that puts out the gross domestic product figures.

According to proponents, a measure of happiness could help assess the success or failure of a range of government policies. It could gauge the virtues of a health benefit or establish whether education has more value than simply higher incomes. It might also detect extremes of inequality or imbalances in how people divide their time between work and leisure.

I’m not sure why there is opposition to this. There are plenty of social scientists who study this topic and have developed established measures of “happiness.” I’ve written on this topic a number of times looking at the effect of income on happiness, how religion leads to greater life satisfaction through interaction with others, and an argument that we need to study flourishing rather than happiness. As I’ve noted before, measuring happiness requires looking at both short- and long-term satisfaction. This panel may have to work on applying these measures onto a national scale but they are not creating a whole new field of study.

The cost issue may be driven more by the current budget troubles than anything else. If you are studying the effectiveness of programs and policies, why not include a measure of well-being? We tend to measure many things in terms of economics and pragmatic factors alone. Overall, it could make government statistics more holistic. A measure of well-being doesn’t have to be the only number that matters in the future but it can play an important role.

Three other thoughts:

1. The panel might consider avoiding the term “happiness” as this seems too subjective to a lot of people. In popular usage, the emotion is considered to be ephemeral. Instead, stick with well-being or life satisfaction.

2. Tying this panel to the idea of the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence seems silly. This doesn’t provide evidence for or against this sort of panel.

3. I’m very amused at the mention of a “statistical bureaucracy.” This might be the worst nightmare for some people: statistics plus government. Just a reminder: one member of the bureaucracy, Robert Graves at the Census Bureau, is a sociologist with a lot of experience with surveys.