Each year, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network measures world happiness. It takes data from 158 countries, and combines that with surveys, in order to index happiness. It’s a fascinating endeavor, and one that undoubtedly leads to a good deal of subjectivity, even if the results are tabulated scientifically.

For instance, let’s examine the factors used in the study. Surveyed are the following: GDP per capita, absence of corruption, generosity, social support, freedom, and healthy life expectancy. These all seem like pretty important things to happiness, but are they the same qualities in a city that would make ME happy? That subjectivity in determining the factors included lends itself to certain results. GDP per capita means more developed nations with larger economies will rate higher, while those with smaller economies will rate lower, even if the affordability of the city is equal. (For instance, a $50,000 average income in Mexico goes a lot further than a $80,000 income in New York, though by the survey’s standards wouldn’t count for as much.)

So let’s take a brief stroll through this list of categories, and see where it leads. As I mentioned above, I would swap out GDP per capita for affordability. Can my income cover a high quality of life? Or, for a visitor, what does my dollar buy me?

Absence of corruption is really limited to permanent residents, as it isn’t something tourists will often encounter. Is it as important as costs? I don’t believe so. Likewise, social support (health, retirement, etc…) is only really important for permanent residents and citizens, though I’d argue more important than the corruption issue.

What is generosity in this survey? I take it to mean the general quality of “kindness” in people one would meet. This is very important to me. For instance, the average passerby in New York City is less friendly than in Chicago, and it makes a big difference in my experience.

Finally we have freedom and healthy life expectancy. These seem to tie into categories above. Typically, freedom and corruption have a good deal of an inverse relationship. Healthy life expectancy also seems to depend more on medical care than anything else according to the research I’ve seen, so it would fall under social support.

So what is missing? I’d start with availability of good food, both in terms of restaurants for a visitor, and fresh (affordable) ingredients for those who reside in a city. Safety would be of paramount concern. While parts of it might coincide with the corruption and generosity categories, being able to walk a city without fear is of the utmost importance to being happy, in my opinion.

What about natural beauty, or good weather? Is someone more likely to be happy in a naturally pretty place like Portland than in the desert sprawl of Phoenix, or more happy with San Diego’s weather than that of Minneapolis? Again, to me, these are important factors. What about the availability of good transportation? Being from Los Angeles, having a viable alternative to traffic would be a boon.

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada routinely ranks at or near the top of surveys like this. That got me thinking, and I wondered if, on my recent trip, I would notice that happiness manifested, or if it would simply be relegated to a theoretical happiness score with no reflection in actuality. (Are there places where people should be happy according to the score but just aren’t?)

Beautiful places like Stanley Park certainly add to my happiness

Vancouver checked in at number five on this year’s list, and for good reason. It has pretty much all of the boxes ticked off, both in the actual survey and in my revision, with the exception of affordability (it is expensive to visit and more so to live). And, I must say that people in Vancouver genuinely seem happy. They are polite, friendly, and typically walking or biking around with smiles on. (Of course there are exceptions, but it was the overall vibe I got.) Each conversation I had with a resident included his/her gratitude at calling Vancouver home.

Does the availability of cultural activities like the Vancouver Museum of Art make you happy?

So what qualities would make YOU happy in a city, either as a resident or a visitor?

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3 thoughts on “Measuring a Happy City

  1. Interesting post! And actually I thought of Vancouver as soon as I started reading it! One thing that has continually struck me is, in spite of any draw backs it may have, everyone in Vancouver seems happy. (And I wrote a post about why I love the city because of this!) But funnily enough Orkney is always ranked one of the best places to live in the UK for completely opposite reasons (it’s an island, low unemployment, isolated, community-driven, low crime, affordable housing etc). So I’m not sure how you measure it, really!

    1. Seriously! I think it’s totally subjective in the categories. Some people would be happy in places I’d hate

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