Study names Pittsburgh nation's second most unhappy city

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Leave it to the National Bureau of Economic Research to throw a thick, wet blanket on Pittsburgh’s positive rankings parade.

In recent years, we’ve been named the most livable city. One of the most romantic. A world-wide travel destination. And more.

But deep down, are we a miserable lot?

Perhaps, according to a working paper by researchers at Harvard University and the University of British Columbia.

Their work, “Unhappy Cities,” published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, ranked Pittsburgh as the second unhappiest large city in the country, with only New York City listed as more unhappy.

Louisville, Ky., Milwaukee and Detroit round out the rest of the top five least happy cities in metro areas with a population over 1 million, with Richmond, Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Va.; Washington, D.C.; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and Atlanta as the most happy cities.

In terms of smaller cities, Erie and Scranton both ranked less happy than Pittsburgh, while Charlottesville, Va., and Rochester, Minn., ranked as the country’s happiest.

The levels of relative happiness were taken from a question asked on a survey distributed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that asks, “In general, how satisfied are you with your life?”

Over the five years of data analyzed (2005-10), 45.6 percent answered “very satisfied,” 48.7 percent responded “satisfied,” 4.6 percent answered “unsatisfied,” and 1.1 percent reported being “very dissatisfied.”

The researchers assigned a numerical score to those answers and controlled for demographics to come up with their city rankings.

They found a strong correlation between unhappiness and declining population, particularly in the Rust Belt. “The most striking fact is that the areas with the largest population declines since 1950 tend to have lower happiness,” said Joshua Gottlieb, an author of the study and an economics professor at the University of British Columbia.

That finding does not explain the top dog of unhappiness, New York City, which has not suffered from population decline. “Different places may have different conceptions of what happiness means,” said Mr. Gottlieb. “For example, it might take more to make a New Yorker say they are ‘very satisfied’ than it would take for someone in Louisiana to say the same thing.”

So maybe Pittsburghers are like New Yorkers — just hard to please. You know, the kind of people for which anything but a Super Bowl championship is a disappointing season.

An online column in Time magazine actually chastised Pittsburghers, saying that compared to New Yorkers, they have nothing to be unhappy about. “Pittsburgh doesn’t know from unhappy. I’ve lived there,” wrote assistant managing editor and current New Yorker Bill Saporito. “Pittsburghers are so darn nice you could scream. You want to make a left turn against traffic? Go ahead, don’t even bother to stop because the driver opposite will be waving you across.”

And maybe Pittsburghers actually aren’t that unhappy. Chris Briem, regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research, pointed to a survey showing the 32-county Western Pennsylvania region actually considered itself happier than the nation as a whole. The Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey, released in July of 2012, asked residents of the Pittsburgh region to rate their happiness, on a scale of 1 to 10. Pittsburghers scored “relatively high,” according to the study, with the regional average of 7.8 higher than the national mean of 7.4.

Researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research investigated other possible sources of unhappiness, such as January temperature, precipitation, crime and pollution, and found no significant relationship.

The study also found that it’s not just the old, grizzled city dwellers who are dissatisfied. “Newer residents of these cities appear to be as unhappy as longer term residents, and yet some people continue to move to these cities,” reads the paper. “While the historical data on happiness are limited, the available facts suggest that cities that are now declining were also unhappy in their more prosperous past.”

Anya Sostek: or 412-263-1308. 

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