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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014 12:01 am

Land of mope and worry

A lot of people are not happy where they live

To borrow a phrase, all happy cities are alike; each unhappy city is unhappy in its own way. To learn a bit about what those unhappy ways are, three economists at Harvard and the University of British Columbia sifted through the responses by some 300,000 Americans to a national survey run by the Centers for Disease Control. The question was, “In general, how satisfied are you with your life?” In that clever way statisticians have, the economists then derived the aggregate levels of happiness in 318 U.S. metropolitan areas.

The results suggest either that everything I know about cities is incorrect, or that everything I know about people is incorrect – or that everything I suspect about social science research is all too correct. (The authors talk about happiness, for instance, when the CDC survey on which it is based talked about satisfaction, as if the words mean the same thing.) As evidence I offer the study’s list of the nation’s 10 “happiest cities” (actually metro areas).

  1. Lafayette, LA
  2. Houma, LA
  3. Shreveport-Bossier City, LA
  4. Baton Rouge,LA
  5. Alexandria, LA
  6. Rochester, MN
  7. Corpus Christi, TX
  8. Lake Charles, LA
  9. Nashville, TN
  10. Gainesville, FL

These happy cities are alike in being places in which I wouldn’t want to change a tire, much less live. How to explain that Louisiana is the lost Eden that we all have been searching for? I suspect that the answer is found in the people, not the places. People who make fewer demands on life are likely to be happier wherever they live, and places that make fewer demands on people are likely to leave them happier. If living in a backwater were the key to happiness this country, the redneck hero would not be Sarah Palin but Mary Poppins.

Illinois as a whole seems mired in the slough of despond. The authors contrived a happiness scale in which 1 indicates the most and 8 the least happy. All but 10 of the state’s 102 counties rank sixth. (Has Congress been talking about reducing the corn subsidy again?) Not much of a surprise there, as I explored not long ago in a column titled “Stuck in Illinois . . . with the Indiana blues again.”

One can understand why folks in, say, Vermilion County do not share the happiness of their Cajun cousins. But the study asserts that people who live in and around San Francisco are no happier than those in Vermilion County. I’ve been to the Bay Area and I’ve been to Vermilion County, and even if you hate everything about the Bay Area – and the food, the scenery, the weather, the parks and the shops all rank high on my personal happy-making scale – the Bay Area ought to make you happier than Vermilion County if only because if you’re in the Bay Area you’re not in Vermilion County.

The mood was lighter in Sangamon/Menard, whose residents placed their lives in the “It’s OK, I guess” territory, as did Will County and the Quad Cities. (Deere’s sales must be good.) Even happier are denizens of the Peoria metro area – Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties – whose sunny outlook put it third on the scale. The smiles on the faces of the Peorians were outdone only by McLean County whose citizens earned a 2 – the happiest spot in this commonwealth.

The study of happiness is rudimentary, but evidence grows that happiness is not a matter of what you have but what you used to have, or what you think you might have. The economists found that people were most unhappy in once-prosperous towns undergoing decline. Look at Champaign County, long the garden spot of mid-Illinois, which today ranked seventh on the happiness scale, in part because it has one of the highest poverty rates among all Illinois counties.

The CDC data suggest that residents in our Decaturs and Joliets were never very happy even when they were prosperous. A good living, not good living, was all people could expect from a factory town. A faltering expectation of a stable financial future thus is poison in cities that offer little else. The Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission and UIS recently asked nearly 730 residents of Sangamon County what they thought about their neighborhoods. Most folks wanted to stay in their neighborhoods, even the poor ones, and only a big jump in income would make them think of leaving. That’s good. However, more than one in five of those people said they believed that their neighborhoods would be worse places to live in coming years.

And they probably will. As John Maynard Keynes noted, “a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than mathematical expectations, whether moral or hedonistic or economic.” The expectation of decline aggravates decline. People cease to invest in the upkeep of their houses and reject even needful tax increases to enhance the public realm. Even a stable economy is not enough to excite the kind of private investment and public participation that makes a great town a great town. The result is a town that is unkempt and shabby, the urban equivalent of the depressive’s apartment. Bummer.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at jkrohe@illinoistimes.com

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