Should Cities be Happiness Machines?

Here’s an unhappy thought: the more we focus on happiness as a subject matter, the less content we become.

This is one of the many bits of research that comes out of the positive psychology discipline that has steadily infiltrated western culture over the past decade.  It’s a finding that tends not to be emphasized, as it hardly supports the marketing of the field, but it can be found in the work of Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, a co-founder of positive psychology.

Csikzentmihalyi advanced the now popular notion of “flow”, which can be defined as “the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities.”  His research showed that being in a state of total absorption or flow brings about a feeling of happiness and that when we interrupt it, by say thinking about whether we are indeed happy, the flow stops and discontent rushes in.

Notwithstanding this insight, the happiness movement, as it’s known, is now the intent focus of many.  For the past several years, hundreds of books, reports and articles touting the triggers and benefits of cheerfulness have appeared on the scene.  In the last three months alone has 40 new books on the topic.

This popularity has spawned a virtual industry and with that influence and cache, governments have taken notice.  The nation of Bhutan was perhaps the first to bring forward the concept of state monitored joy, with it’s gross national happiness index (GNH), an alternative indicator to GDP to measure collective progress.  More recently, enumerate organizations, conferences and studies have been launched to study the importance of happiness and decipher ways to measure it.  Even French President Nicholas Sarkosky has gleefully jumped on the band wagon by sponsoring a high profile commission to propose ways of adding social outcomes and general well-being, to how we track societal progress.

While this new expanded view of the human project to areas outside of traditionally defined economic growth, with all it’s failings, is a welcome direction for governments and researchers to take, it brings with it a somewhat problematic offshoot – happiness rankings of countries and now cities.

Last year Gallup ranked 155 countries based on the self reported “life satisfaction” of people across the globe. Similar polls & studies have also been carried out for states and cities, and in both cases the result has been the slapping of “happiest city” and “most miserable state” tags on various locales.

Toronto, the city that I call home, was bestowed with the “miserable” label last month, following a report by the Ottawa based Centre for the Study of Living Standards. The study, whimsicly entitled Does Money Matter? Determining the Happiness of Canadians, purports to explain what drives the perceived well-being of Canadians by comparing reports of happiness to factors such as health, sense of belonging and financial status. The details of the study are quite interesting, maybe even enlightening, and if they inform social and economic policy all the better.  What is irksome, however, is that beyond the clues offered to what factors motivate us to feel happy, the lessons for cities are confusing.

Life satisfaction across Canada’s cities is, according to the study, quite high but comparatively, it’s the country’s largest cities that score lowest.  Toronto, Vancouver and even Montreal fall far below in happiness than the much smaller cities of Peterborough, Trois Rivieres and Saint John.  The study of course points to some of the reasons for this, mainly to do with ‘sense of belonging’ factors, but I can’t help but focus on the disconnect between these conclusions and the various city livability rankings that grab headlines once or twice a year.

In terms of livability, mid to large cities like Vancouver and Toronto consistently top the rankings, not nationally, but globally.  The same pattern holds true in the US, where America’s most famous city – New York, is close to the bottom of the heap on the happiness ranking.  How is it that the most livable and iconic cities have less happy people?

One might point to the ever present stress and competitiveness of big cities, but I’ve lived in Vancouver and can say quite confidently that apart from property value teeth-gnashing, life stress for the majority is in low supply there.  What seems perhaps a better explanation to this happiness disconnect is the matter of expectations.  Toronto, Vancouver and New York are cities of migration that receive thousands of new (and I imagine quite hopeful) residents each year. The expectations of these fortune seekers are high, perhaps impossibly so.  After all, the main draws of major business and cultural hubs is the opportunity they offer and the aura of possibility they conjure up.  They are  magnets for those seeking to improve their lot.

In contrast a city of 120,000 like Peterborough, Ontario, where I happen to have been born, is not a magnet of any kind, save perhaps for those drawn to it’s small and quite descent university and the legion of donut shops and lumber yards it sports.  It’s a pleasant place to be but it is far from the land of opportunity, excitement or creativity for that matter.

Small centres and towns provide something unique onto themselves, but they also often purge those wishing to create something bigger and more robust.  The sense of connectiveness and cohesion that renders people content in smaller communities strangles many others, who in turn high-tail it for you know where.  By consequence this leaves the least restless to happily carry on and respond to surveys about life satisfaction.

Are there cues that cities like New York or Toronto should take from Peterborough?  I’d wager not.  What makes large culturally dynamic cities great, as oppose to places like Peterborough, is the variety of experiences they offer.  New York, Rome and London are venues for grand statements of collective celebration – parades, festivals and huge gatherings.  They are also cities of imagination and mystery as much as they are functional places to live. It’s this diversity, amidst the hustle and rare moments of pause, that emboldens civicness, fosters knowledge and tests the resolve of residents.

As the famously melancholic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “you must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star”.  Perhaps we should keep that in mind when judging or ranking our cities.



Filed under Complexity, Myles Mackenzie, Urban Research, Well-being

2 responses to “Should Cities be Happiness Machines?

  1. Hello. Interesting post + blog. I’m a recent transplant to TO from Brooklyn, NY. This topic keeps coming up for me. There’s been a consistent stream of commentary around me about how Torontonians feel about the city and each other – none of it good. Not exactly encouraging to it’s newest resident 🙂 Although New Yorkers LOVE to complain, it isn’t really an unhappiness toward New York itself (in my experience). But Torontonians I meet consistently put TO down when they realize where I moved from. I’ve been told it’s an ‘inferiority complex’ of sorts. It’s unfortunate. A friend in NY said to me: “The only people who don’t think Toronto is cool… are people in Toronto.” I’m realizing this is actually true.

    • It’s great to hear your perceptive – I know of what you speak. Having just moved back to TO after several years living on the west coast, I’m now seeing the city anew, a bit like you. It’s a weird thing to contend with here, the whole self-bashing thing. Peeling back the psychology of it, I’d say it stems from years and years of being culturally isolated within Canada. Unlike the US, there just aren’t very many large cosmopolitan centres in the country and so Toronto has stood out as a kind of privileged “centre of the universe”, as the outsiders jab used to go. After decades of this plus the extra toping of Canadian inferiority vis-a-vis America, it’s been internalized into a special form of self-loathing. The recent mayor’s race really jacked up the whole downtown versus suburbs thing, which has effectively reopened the wound, which is sad or maddening, or both. It’s strange that a city that’s come into its own, like TO has, still has to contend with this. Somewhere along the line (or maybe from the beginning) New Yorkers realized that standing out wasn’t a bad thing. Torontonians haven’t quite figured that out yet. At least not en masse. Hopefully this quirk doesn’t weigh down your experience of living here. We don’t all hate our home! Really. 🙂

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