What America’s Unhappiest Cities Reveal about Life Satisfaction

Image courtesy of digitalart/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of digitalart/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I was fascinated by the results of a new study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research that listed the unhappiest cities in America.

The results say a lot about human nature and happiness.

So, what city came in dead last and was rated as the least happy?

It seems that people living in New York City are bummed out the most, followed by Pittsburgh, Louisville, Milwaukee and Detroit, in that order.

On the flip side, it turns out residents of Louisiana, home of Dixieland music and Creole cooking, are jumping for joy. Five cities in that state were ranked as some of the happiest areas with Lafayette winning top prize.

The study was based on a questionnaire administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the last several years and asked respondents: “In general, how satisfied are you with your life?” Researchers then tweaked that data for control factors such as race, education, income, marital status, and family size.

And in case you’re curious — and you know you are — the top 10 states on the happiness scale are, in descending order:

  • Louisiana
  • Hawaii
  • Florida
  • Tennessee
  • Arizona
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • South Carolina
  • Alabama
  • Maine

Like many of the states in the Top 10, Louisiana has a good climate with warm weather. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story since my own state, sunny California ranked way down on the list at No. 46.

Image courtesy of Photokanok/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Photokanok/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Americans who described themselves as satisfied tended to live in places where the quality of life was good by most standards. The cost of living didn’t cause a lot of financial stress, traffic congestion wasn’t too overwhelming, crime rates were lower, the air was reasonably clear, the climate allowed an outdoorsy life, and people in these happier cities generally enjoyed a slower pace of life.

Considering all that, you would think that residents of New York City would be fleeing the Big Apple for happier locations. But that’s not the case, as evidenced by the city’s  exploding all-time-high population of 8.4 million.

People still flock to that city despite all the congestion and a cost of living that is through the roof. Why? In large part, because they’re looking for success in their careers and are hoping to strike it big. The same reason that many people come to California.

One of the reasons I found the results of this study so fascinating was that it suggests that people may be deciding to trade happiness for career prospects and financial gain.

Like Frank Sinatra’s song, New York, New York, when he sings: “These little town blues are melting away. I’ll make a brand new start of it in old New York. If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you, New York, New York.”

The trouble with that ideal is that people run to these cities willing to sacrifice everything – including their happiness – to achieve their goals.

The authors of the study agree with this assessment and wrote: “If we choose only that which maximized our happiness, then individuals would presumably move to happier places until the point where rising rents and congestion eliminated the joys of that locale. An alternative view is that humans are quite understandably willing to sacrifice both happiness and life satisfaction if the price is right. … Indeed, the residents of unhappier metropolitan areas today do receive higher real wages — presumably as compensation for their misery.”

So evidently, people are willing to sacrifice happiness and life satisfaction when the price is right. Really, people? Is that the way you want to live?

I believe you can be happy no matter where you live, but think again about what’s most important in life. What about taking time to focus on spiritual matters, your family life, as well as fun, contentment, and relaxation?

Just think. People in Louisiana on average earn 14% less than the rest of America. But in the warm and sunny state, life moves at a more comfortable pace. Fishing and other outdoor sporting activities have earned Louisiana the nickname “Sportsman’s Paradise.” Food, festivals and fine arts are year-round affairs. Statistically, residents of this state spend more time on leisurely activities like playing board games, relaxing, socializing, and simply goofing off. 

This study should be a wake up call. Is chasing the “American dream” really worth sacrificing your happiness?


Julie A. Gorges is the author of two young adult novels, Just Call Me Goody Two Shoes and Time to Cast Away and co-author of Residential Steel Design and Construction published by McGraw Hill. In addition, hundreds of her articles and short stories have been published in national and regional magazines, and she received three journalism awards from the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association while working as a newspaper reporter. Julie currently lives in southern California with her husband, Scott, and has two grown children and three grandchildren.

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8 Responses

  1. Suzie Cheel says:

    Love this, was surprised that California was so low and New mexico were not on that list, then I am an Aussie so what would i know. I know I like warm weather too

    • juliegorges says:

      How fun to hear from an Aussie. Visited your country awhile back and loved it there. It seemed to me that people I met there were very happy and satisfied with life. I think here in California we have to learn how to slow down a bit. Sometimes it feels like we’re constantly running on a hamster wheel – which is probably what we share in common with New Yorkers. Although here at the beach (where I am this weekend) things are a bit more laid back. My parents lived in New Mexico and have the best memories of the place, so I am also surprised it wasn’t at the top of the list.

  2. Trina says:

    I’m glad to see South Carolina on the Happy list. I moved here from Ohio and yes, I can safely say that people are happier here. With so much sunshine, our Vitamin D levels are much higher than those people in cloudy place.

  3. I’m a different sort of person. I like sunny days, I like being outside – I don’t like HOT. Louisiana would drain me.

    That said, whatever the weather, my husband and I like smaller town life. We life in a community of about 15,000 and many things about it. Slower pace but we still have a library, a movie theater, lots of restaurants to choose from, even a fair number of small independently owned stores.

    I think large towns/small cities are the place to be.

    • juliegorges says:

      Personally, I like large towns/small cities as well. I have lived in really small towns – Willits in northern California and in the Idyllwild mountains, but that was too small, isolated, and inconvenient for me. I’ve never lived in a big city, although I enjoy visiting these places, I think it would be too congested for me. In Washington state, I lived in Puyallup, a nice sized town close to Seattle which was a great city to visit. Where I live now is also a nice size city, although larger than yours with about 37,000 population. Anyhow, I am in total agreement with you. Middle of the road is ideal!

  4. Boston Dee says:

    Boston and environs are a great place to live and work. Culture, innovation, great food and nice people. We’re true friends once you get beyond our crusty exterior. If you want a Four Seasons experience, its here. History surrounds us.
    Boomers are moving back into the downtown in droves. Its a very walkable city. Mass transit and services like Uber, Zipcar, and HubBike make it easy to get around. A great place for the young and young at heart.

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