The biggest challenge to urbanism? Happiness.

Much is being made of cities right now and the importance of the urban center as a solution to humanity’s ills: TED gave its prize to The City, people got up in arms about what we spend on rural post offices, and green living is oriented mainly at people who live nowhere near the green.  But for all the talk of what we can do with cities to improve the lives of people, I think people are generally missing the boat on the most important problem we need to solve if we believe that cities will be the new center of life for most people.  It isn’t transportation, or green space, or jobs – its happiness.

In study after study, psychologists have shown that living in cities is generally pretty bad for people, mentally speaking.  While it does make them smarter (possibly due to exposure to different kinds of diversity of experiences), it doesn’t increase their well-being, and if anything it has significant drawbacks for happiness.  The first step to towards planning the city of the future is recognizing that making its citizens happy will be the greatest challenge, and it is one of the challenges that we know the least about.

There is a startling dearth of comprehensive research about the “why” of the city-unhappy link.  We have been good about cataloging the various ways in which it gets expressed, but we don’t know that much about why it happens and even less about potential solutions.  While we’re busily out there employing city planners and green architects and transportation experts, very little of the current boom of funding and interest is getting allocated to the basic problem of figuring out how to make cities mentally livable, not just physically livable.

Now at some level, those may be the same things: if we make better transportation, people will be happier.  More green spaces, more happiness.  But without stepping back and taking happiness as an explicit, quantifiable outcome of urbanism projects, I worry that we will create cities in which everyone could live…and no one wants to.

2 replies
  1. Drew Volpe
    Drew Volpe says:

    Interesting thought. One reason I think much discussion of development centers on economic and environmental impact is that these are recognizable problems and the outcomes are measurable.
    Most people don’t think of “happiness” as a problem or something that can be addressed globally. Would it be possible to construct a measure of how happy a population is? A “Gross Domestic Happiness” index ? I would imagine simply doing self-report surveys would not be particularly useful, but are there other numbers that could be tracked ?

  2. matt
    matt says:

    The measurement of happiness is certainly key (and hard). In the past,we’ve conceptualized it by looking at the lack: depression, etc. But more recently, people have tried to look more directly at happiness and well-being itself, and that’s been a bit trickier, especially since measures are so poor at correlating with each other. For example, a great study asked people randomly throughout the day “how happy are you right now?” and then at the end of the day “how happy were you today?”. Turns out that the two of those correlate rather poorly: our overall idea of our happiness doesn’t appear to be strongly linked to the momentary experiences of happiness that we have in our lives.
    That said, poor as our measures are, I think we can still look at behavioral outcomes as a way of measuring how people are doing. Self-report isn’t terrible and we can also look for the things that people do when they are happy, like spend more time with others, etc. Or maybe use some of your tech to randomly check for happiness?

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