Gary Rotstein’s The Morning File: Pittsburghers, why are you so unhappy?



Newspapers love bad news, everyone knows, and The Morning File likes to think of itself as a leader of the pack in that regard. We proudly view ourselves as a Random Acts of Badness alternative to what appears Thursdays on this page.

That is why the awful report that came out this month from one of our favorite think tanks, the National Bureau of Economic Research, so delighted us.

We’re not talking about its recent Asian agriculture treatise, “The Impact of Rainfall on Rice Output in Indonesia,” which covers that topic better than anything we’ve seen before.

What’s making us so happy, in an ironic sort of way, is the bureau’s report titled simply “Unhappy Cities.” Finally, some authoritative research that can put to rest all of the lists and rankings that say Pittsburgh is the best this, the best that, the best whatever. This is one ranking you won’t find the politicians, tourism agencies and chambers of commerce touting.

Plugging in some nifty calculations we can’t pretend to understand, the report determined that of American metropolitan areas of more than 1 million people, New York is the unhappiest city. That makes sense to us, because if we had to pay the kind of money they do there to see a Broadway show, we’d be depressed for months afterward.

But No. 2? Less happy than Detroit and Buffalo and other great Rust Belt non-meccas, in addition to dozens of other urban centers? That’s us! Feel free to shout it from the top of Mount Washington, if you’re not worried about Mayor Bill Peduto shoving you over the overlook when you’re not looking.

As always with such findings, there’s a caveat. One key aspect of the ranking was how residents of cities reported their level of self-satisfaction in a national study titled the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System between 2005 and 2010. So it’s not really a ranking based on how happy Pittsburghers are now but back when, um, let’s see:

• The city had a mayor many of his constituents deemed an embarrassment.

• The baseball team had not had a winning season in anyone’s recent memory.

• A half-century of population losses had yet to abate.

• Actress Sienna Miller used a nasty twist on the name “Pittsburgh” when referring to the city in Rolling Stone magazine.

Put all that together, and there’s no surprise we were unhappy in that era.

All of that is different now. (Except maybe for Sienna Miller’s perspective, but since her career has gone nowhere since making her locally infamous comment — unless we somehow lost track of the Oscars that went to “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” — we can only assume she’s been living ever since under some kind of curse that William Pitt’s ghost planted upon her.)

According to the report, the happiest big cities were to our southeast: the Richmond, Va.; Norfolk, Va.; and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas. They and most of the other places in the top 10 shared a factor Pittsburgh lacks: a lot of sunshine. “Unhappy Cities” didn’t say much about weather, however the report instead found a strong link between unhappiness and cities that lacked population growth.

“We do not interpret this correlation as suggesting that population decline causes unhappiness,” said the study’s authors from the University of British Columbia. “Indeed, cities that have declined also seem to have been unhappy in the past, which suggests that a better interpretation might be that these areas were always unhappy, and that was one reason why they declined.”

That’s right, the bad news is even better than we’d hoped. Pittsburghers have apparently always hated our lives, except possibly on the Monday after a Steelers victory, though we can’t expect some guys from British Columbia to understand that.

The big question is how different the findings will be when the happiness study comes out that takes the Pittsburgh of 2014 into account. Might we be more satisfied because, say, we have a ride-sharing alternative to Yellow Cab, or will such progress be overridden by our continuing inability to buy a bottle of wine at 10 p.m. when a sudden urge for a good merlot strikes us?

Stay tuned for the update. If the news is really bad, we’re sure to bring it to you.


Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.

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