There’s a saying, “wherever you go, there you are,” which basically means don’t expect your life to change just because you’ve moved to a new place. A new paper called “Unhappy Cities” from a trio of economists says that attitude’s plain wrong. They analyze happiness levels in US metropolitan areas and find that just like it’s hard to be healthy when you’re breathing bad air, some cities actually make their citizens less happy than they might otherwise be.
The authors are Edward Glaeser (who’s also a Globe columnist) and Oren Ziv of Harvard, and Joshua Gottlieb of the University of British Columbia. They used life-satisfaction data from national surveys, and found that the metropolitan areas with the least happy residents tended to be declining industrial cities. Springfield, Mass., was the eighth least happy city, only marginally better off than such cheery locales as Scranton and Jersey City. Large East Coast metropolitan areas fared badly in general—of big cities, New York City was the least happy. (Bostonians were also dissatisfied with their lives on the whole, though we fall outside the top 10 least happy cities in the United States).
Happiness surveys raise the question of whether specific places make people unhappy, or whether unhappy people happen to cluster in specific places. The authors find that place matters; by controlling for basic demographic variables like age, sex, and race, they conclude that the same person would, on average, have different levels of happiness depending on where he lived. As a result, you could expect someone moving from Charlottesville, Va., (the happiest metro area of all) to Boston, to become less satisfied with his life.
There are good reasons people might choose to be less happy with their lives, especially when happiness is defined as something narrow like moment-to-moment contentment. At the same time, we make bad decisions in our lives all the time—and unhappiness itself can promote bad decision-making, perhaps tethering us to a place we might be better off putting in the rear-view mirror.
One view of people with mental illness is that they operate outside of society. While the sane among us observe social mores and pay at least some heed to what other people think of us, the mentally ill live in worlds of their own.
Surprising new research on schizophrenia suggests, however, that people with mental illness may have stronger, stranger ties to their societies than we commonly assume. In a new article in the British Journal of Psychiatry, Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann explains that for schizophrenics experiencing auditory hallucinations, the cultures they live in shape the voices they hear in their minds. She interviewed adults with schizophrenia who live in three different places: Chennai, India; Accra, Ghana; and San Mateo, Calif., and asked about the voices they heard in their minds.
The people from Ghana and India generally found hearing voices to be a positive experience: The voices were benign and playful, or involved sex or spiritual encounters. The 20 people interviewed in California expressed opposite sentiments, describing the voices as angry, hateful, noisy, and violent.
The differences across cultures, Luhrmann argues, can be explained by several factors. In India and Ghana, people were more likely to hear what they thought of as voices of family members, while in the United States, schizophrenics tended to regard the voices as strangers. She observes that extended families are tighter in Ghana and India than they are here, where we’re more likely to live alone.
A second factor has to do with basic differences in how people in the study thought of what it meant to hear voices in the first place. In the United States, people considered the voices to be expressions of an illness or defect, while in Ghana and India, they were willing to think of the voices as coming from disembodied spirits or God. This suggests that how societies think about a condition like schizophrenia can go a long way to determining how people experience it.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.