Gross Urban Happiness

The happiest cities are certainly not the largest, and the richest cities are rarely the happiest. The happiness of urban residents depends on just a few factors, and you can often increase this happiness with a few targeted measures.

In 1971, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan proclaimed that ‘Gross National Happiness’ is more important than ‘Gross National Product.’ In the decades since then, the idea that Gross National Product is an insufficient measure of the success of a place has also caught on outside Bhutan. In 2012, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution that governments should try to increase the happiness of their citizens. However, happiness as a policy issue is not confined to central governments. Many cities have begun monitoring ‘Gross Urban Happiness’ by means of community wellbeing surveys. Some mayors have even gone as far as implementing happiness in local policy. In Somerville, local policies are explicitly based on whether they make people happy, and the mayor of Seoul declared in an interview that the local government is striving for greater happiness for a greater number of people, rather than growth of wealth. In Vilnius, a happiness barometer has been installed to measure the happiness of citizens in real time – residents can submit a gauge of their emotions throughout the day using their smartphones.

At the same time, several skeptics have argued that governments are turning their attention to happiness to cover up lousy economic performance. It does beg the question: why would mayors really care about happiness?

First, there is a rising public appreciation of happiness; it is something citizens want in the 21st century. Just behind health, life satisfaction is rated as the second most important component for a better life in the OECD Better Life Index. Currently, life satisfaction matters more than topics like education, income, and civic engagement. Second, local governments are nowadays in competition to attract highly educated workers and large corporations to their cities. Since happiness can be regarded as a subjective assessment of quality of life, happier cities are also more attractive places to reside. Third, higher happiness seems to imply better health and higher productivity, which also means lower health expenditures and better economic performance. Fourth, happier citizens are more likely to vote for an incumbent government in local elections rather than a new one.

However, if local governments have a fundamental task of making their citizens happier, we also need tools to assess their success in achieving this goal. Measurements of Gross Urban Happiness are useful as a democratic instrument to evaluate public policy and to improve urban design.

Although happiness is a state of mind and thus cannot be measured in the same way as weight or blood pressure, it is a well-defined concept that people are conscious of (satisfaction with life in general). Accordingly, happiness can be measured by directly asking people how happy they are; several questions have been developed for this purpose, including ‘How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your current life as a whole?’ and ‘How happy are you these days?’ Most data on urban happiness comes from large-scale surveys, such as Eurobarometer and Gallup, or local community surveys. Regrettably, most of these surveys only ask citizens about their happiness and their satisfaction with their place of residence once a year. Using these global estimates, it is difficult to accurately assess policies to make people happier. Fortunately, tools that use multi-moment assessments of happiness, where respondents are frequently asked about their satisfaction with city life, are gradually gaining ground.


Nevertheless, average urban happiness scores based on global estimates reveal interesting findings. In the table above, an overview of the happiest and unhappiest European cities are ranked based on a 2012 Eurobarometer survey conducted in 79 European cities that was obtained from the World Database of Happiness. Happiness on a scale from 0 to 10 ranges from well over an 8 in Aalborg, Copenhagen, Reykjavik, Zurich, and Vienna to below a 5 in Athens, where the average urban happiness is approximately a 7. Strikingly, megacities like Berlin (7.38), London (7.34), Paris (6.85), and Rome (6.48) not only end up in the middle group of average urban happiness scores, but also score lower than most secondary cities in their countries. For example, the citizens of Dortmund, Essen, Hamburg, Munich, Rostock, and Leipzig are on average happier than the citizens of Berlin. The same pattern can be seen in the Gallup ranking of American metropolitan areas, where the happiest cities are not the largest cities.

This brings us to the most important point, namely the question of whether and how local governments can raise the happiness of their citizens. According to the British happiness researcher Richard Layard, seven factors are imperative to happiness: family relationships, income, work, health, community and friends, freedom, and personal values.

At this point, however, it would be fair to say that the variation in happiness scores between individuals within cities is much larger than the variation in happiness scores between cities. Moreover, part of the differences in happiness between cities is due to the selection of unhappy people into unhappy places and factors that are beyond the control of the local government. Some cities have more single people, are disproportionally hit by a nationwide economic crisis, or simply have lower January temperatures.

However, the observed differences in average happiness between cities are to some extent attributable to different aspects of city life. In the end, the good news is that local governments can raise the life satisfaction of their citizens by consciously steering toward happiness. Places that offer good public transportation services, entertainment, access to natural amenities, health care facilities, and affordable housing, as well as cities that are good places to rear your children, are generally happier cities. Safe and clean environments and the creation of meeting places increase social cohesion and trust, which in turn have a positive effect on happiness. On the other hand, places characterized by a high degree of traffic congestion and crowdedness are on average less happy, since commuting is considered by many people to be one of the worst activities of the day. The latter would, incidentally, also explain the relatively low average happiness scores in cities like Paris and Rome.

The urban environment can have a positive influence on people’s wellbeing. However, a badly planned city can also make people unhappy. There is however no ‘happiness policy’ that fits all cities. One city’s meat is another city’s poison. Obtaining information on what makes inhabitants of a specific city happier, and a better understanding of how citizens perceive city life, is therefore pivotal for policymaking and implementation. In a world in which Gross Urban Happiness is vitally important, regular happiness monitoring is needed, and it is hoped that city leaders will actively take on this challenge to make the world a better place.

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