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Happiness is overrated

What’s the value of happiness? It may be nice to imagine that making good choices leads to a life of satisfaction and happiness, but reality paints a different picture. Humans take actions — whether it is where they reside or to have children — that actually add up to less gratification. And there’s nothing wrong with that, for there are worthier goals than being satisfied with yourself.

This phenomenon is perhaps most acutely seen in where Americans choose to live. More than 53 percent of adults in Galveston County, Texas (population 300,000), report that they are “very satisfied” with their lives, according to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Of the 1.5 million residents in Boston’s Suffolk County, on the other hand, just 41 percent of respondents admitted similar satisfaction levels. Then again, Red Sox fans can enjoy some schadenfraude — fewer than 32 percent of those living in the Bronx said they were very satisfied.

Economists and policy makers have long recognized that happiness is a valuable input. We’re learning many things from the misery of declining cities. Joe Curtatone is dead right to be measuring happiness in Somerville because it provides a unique lens on the quality of life in the city he runs.


What we know now, however, is that the mistake lies in thinking happiness is the be-all and end-all to judging how effective a municipality is operating for its citizens. In a sense, putting happiness above all else is just as foolish as economists who think money is the only objective or doctors who can’t imagine anything that trumps health. Happiness, money, and health are all good goals, but they are rarely the only things people are striving for.

Because, if quality of life is so important, why do people choose to keep living — and moving — to “unhappy” cities? If people in Rust Belt cities like Milwaukee or Detroit are so dissatisfied, why don’t they just move to a new place where they’d be more happy? Because most humans are willing to sacrifice happiness and satisfaction if the price is right — and we’re probably better off for it.

The debate over whether happiness should be life’s ultimate currency is ancient. Greek philosopher Epicurus opined “that pleasure is the end and aim,” while his contemporary Epictetus countered, “What is our nature? To be free, noble, self-respecting . . . We must subordinate pleasure to these principles.” More recently, Jeremy Bentham, the 18th century British thinker, popularized the notion that humans should maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Kant argued that our goal should not be happiness, which does not automatically follow moral behavior, but rather act so as to be worthy of happiness.


Most people, however, are less theoretical and more practical in terms of what they’re willing to trade off for happiness. In fact, it is better to think of happiness as one utility among many, rather than a supreme desideratum. Lower housing costs and higher incomes are often major motivating factors. But there’s more to it than simple household finances.

Consider Boston vs. Galveston. Never mind Boston’s tough winters — the city is a competitive, intense environment to live in year-round. Being around smart people, of which Boston has many, means being very aware of your own limitations. (There’s a reason people are less happy when they have rich neighbors.) But if living in a maelstrom of talent doesn’t naturally lead to self-satisfaction — and constantly being reminded of our shortcomings — it does lead to achievement. Aspiring biomedical researchers may sacrifice happiness and life-satisfaction, but they get colleagues who can help them produce ideas that can change the world.

We see this pattern, too, in parenthood. In study after study, parents tend to report lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction. Could it be that they simply don’t know going in that having kids makes you tired and grumpy? Probably not. But, for most of us, children are still such a reward that they’re worth a little less happiness.


More pleasure is always better than less, holding everything else equal. And misery in America’s declining cities should be something to resist. Yet we should also be glad individuals don’t always choose to maximize happiness. If we were all to leave Boston to move to happier places, the world would be left a little less innovative — probably making someone somewhere else a bit more miserable. Then everyone would be a little less happy.

Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard economist, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.