Joy Town, USA: A closer look at the study that named Charlottesville ‘happiest city’

An aerial view of our fair city. Photo: Jack Looney An aerial view of our fair city. Photo: Jack Looney

Best place to live, best college town, most walkable: Charlottesville’s been praised as all of the above. Its latest accolade, “America’s happiest city,” has generated headlines the world over, and with good reason. We’re not talking about a list cobbled together by interns at a travel magazine, here. The source is a National Bureau of Economic Research-sanctioned study by researchers from Harvard and the University of British Columbia, and they came up with some conclusions about well-being that are worth considering—even if you’re a lucky resident of a town that tops the happiness index.

The main assumption going into the study is a fairly obvious one: Not everybody in the U.S. is equally happy. The raw data that tells us so is found in the results of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a massive ongoing survey by the CDC—with 300,000 people polled a year, it’s the largest telephone survey in the world—that asks Americans across all 50 states a slate of health questions. Among those questions is one about how satisfied respondents are with their lives. In other words, just how happy are you?

University of British Columbia economist Joshua Gottlieb and his colleagues developed a statistical model that aimed to strip away the influence of a host of other factors affecting happiness: age, race, gender, education level, marital and parent status, even the possibility that unhappy people congregate in unhappy places, and vice versa. Charlottesville ended up with the highest score of any metro area in the U.S., and two other Virginia regions—the Richmond-Petersburg area and Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Newport News—topped the list of happiest places with populations over 1 million.

But the researchers’ working paper is titled “Unhappy Cities,” and it’s primarily an examination of just that. Why are people in languishing areas like Gary, Indiana and Detroit so dissatisfied with life? Which comes first, unhappiness or urban decline? 

The short answer, said Gottlieb, is that it looks like it’s the former. Cities whose populations have declined steadily since the 1950s—particularly in the Rust Belt—show up at the bottom of the ranking, and Gallup data going back decades shows that they were unhappiness meccas even before that. And it’s infectious: Newcomers are just as unsatisfied with life as people who have lived in those cities since birth. 

One interesting fact that surfaced along the way, said Gottlieb, is that educated populations tend to be happier. “Charlottesville is very highly educated, so it fits this pattern well,” he said.

But it’s not a simple correlation, the study found—and that was the case for a lot of area attributes, including population and housing values, which ended up being statistically independent from happiness.

The takeaway is a pretty profound.

“We find evidence that people have other objectives in life beyond just maximizing happiness,” said Gottlieb. In other words, Americans aren’t moving around in an effort to maximize their perceived well-being. Happiness isn’t an ultimate goal, it’s something people can and do choose to exchange for higher incomes or a lower cost of living, he said.

By extension, cities full of unhappy people aren’t necessarily doing something wrong, said Gottlieb, and those like Charlottesville aren’t necessarily doing something right—nor should policymakers consider well-being an overriding objective.

“Happiness is not the be-all and end-all of a location’s value as a place to live,” he said.