IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this paper

Unhappy Cities


  • Edward L. Glaeser
  • Joshua D. Gottlieb
  • Oren Ziv


There are persistent differences in self-reported subjective well-being across U.S. metropolitan areas, and residents of declining cities appear less happy than other Americans. Newer residents of these cities appear to be as unhappy as longer term residents, and yet some people continue to move to these areas. 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. One interpretation of these facts is that individuals do not aim to maximize self-reported well-being, or happiness, as measured in surveys, and they willingly endure less happiness in exchange for higher incomes or lower housing costs. In this view, subjective well-being is better viewed as one of many arguments of the utility function, rather than the utility function itself, and individuals make trade-offs among competing objectives, including but not limited to happiness.

Suggested Citation

  • Edward L. Glaeser & Joshua D. Gottlieb & Oren Ziv, 2014. "Unhappy Cities," NBER Working Papers 20291, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:20291
    Note: EFG LS

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: no

    Other versions of this item:

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Daniel W. Sacks & Betsey Stevenson & Justin Wolfers, 2010. "Subjective Well-Being, Income, Economic Development and Growth," NBER Working Papers 16441, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Edward L. Glaeser, Jed Kolko, and Albert Saiz, 2001. "Consumer city," Journal of Economic Geography, Oxford University Press, vol. 1(1), pages 27-50, January.
    3. Robert J. MacCulloch & Rafael Di Tella & Andrew J. Oswald, 2001. "Preferences over Inflation and Unemployment: Evidence from Surveys of Happiness," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(1), pages 335-341, March.
    4. Rappaport, Jordan & Sachs, Jeffrey D, 2003. "The United States as a Coastal Nation," Journal of Economic Growth, Springer, vol. 8(1), pages 5-46, March.
    5. Roback, Jennifer, 1982. "Wages, Rents, and the Quality of Life," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 90(6), pages 1257-1278, December.
    6. Clark, Andrew E & Oswald, Andrew J, 1994. "Unhappiness and Unemployment," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 104(424), pages 648-659, May.
    7. Richard Florida & Charlotta Mellander & Peter J. Rentfrow, 2013. "The Happiness of Cities," Regional Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 47(4), pages 613-627, April.
    8. Alesina, Alberto & Di Tella, Rafael & MacCulloch, Robert, 2004. "Inequality and happiness: are Europeans and Americans different?," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 88(9-10), pages 2009-2042, August.
    9. A. Colin Cameron & Jonah B. Gelbach & Douglas L. Miller, 2011. "Robust Inference With Multiway Clustering," Journal of Business & Economic Statistics, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 29(2), pages 238-249, April.
    10. Edward L. Glaeser & Matt Resseger & Kristina Tobio, 2009. "Inequality In Cities," Journal of Regional Science, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 49(4), pages 617-646.
    11. Edward L. Glaeser & Kristina Tobio, 2008. "The Rise of the Sunbelt," Southern Economic Journal, Southern Economic Association, vol. 74(3), pages 610-643, January.
    12. Edward L. Glaeser & Joseph Gyourko & Raven E. Saks, 2005. "Why Have Housing Prices Gone Up?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 95(2), pages 329-333, May.
    13. Erzo F. P. Luttmer, 2005. "Neighbors as Negatives: Relative Earnings and Well-Being," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 120(3), pages 963-1002.
    14. Ludwig, Jens & Duncan, Greg J. & Katz, Lawrence F. & Kessler, Ronald & Kling, Jeffrey R. & Gennetian, Lisa A. & Sanbonmatsu, Lisa, 2012. "Neighborhood Effects on the Long-Term Well-Being of Low-Income Adults," Scholarly Articles 11870359, Harvard University Department of Economics.
    15. Daly, Mary C. & Oswald, Andrew J. & Wilson, Daniel & Wu, Stephen, 2011. "Dark contrasts: The paradox of high rates of suicide in happy places," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 80(3), pages 435-442.
    16. George J. Stigler, 1950. "The Development of Utility Theory. II," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 58, pages 373-373.
    17. Edward L. Glaeser & Joshua D. Gottlieb, 2008. "The Economics of Place-Making Policies," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 39(1 (Spring), pages 155-253.
    18. Edward L. Glaeser, 2007. "The Economics Approach to Cities," NBER Working Papers 13696, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    19. Daniel Kahneman & Alan B. Krueger, 2006. "Developments in the Measurement of Subjective Well-Being," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 20(1), pages 3-24, Winter.
    20. Edward L. Glaeser & Charles Redlick, 2009. "Social Capital and Urban Growth," International Regional Science Review, , vol. 32(3), pages 264-299, July.
    21. Oswald, Andrew J. & Wu, Stephen, 2010. "Objective Confirmation of Subjective Measures of Human Well-being: Evidence from the USA," IZA Discussion Papers 4695, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    22. Easterlin, Richard A., 1995. "Will raising the incomes of all increase the happiness of all?," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 27(1), pages 35-47, June.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)


    Blog mentions

    As found by, the blog aggregator for Economics research:
    1. Urban unhappiness
      by nawmsayn in ZeeConomics on 2014-08-06 23:10:43


    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.

    Cited by:

    1. Gabriel Ahlfeldt & Elisabetta Pietrostefani, 2017. "The Economic Effects of Density: A Synthesis," CESifo Working Paper Series 6744, CESifo Group Munich.
    2. Gabriel M. Ahfeldt & Elisabetta Pietrostefani, 2017. "The Compact City in Empirical Research: A Quantitative Literature Review," SERC Discussion Papers 0215, Spatial Economics Research Centre, LSE.
    3. Chauvin, Juan Pablo & Glaeser, Edward & Ma, Yueran & Tobio, Kristina, 2017. "What is different about urbanization in rich and poor countries? Cities in Brazil, China, India and the United States," Journal of Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 98(C), pages 17-49.
    4. Akay, Alpaslan & Bargain, Olivier & Jara, Xavier, 2017. "'Fair' Welfare Comparisons with Heterogeneous Tastes: Subjective versus Revealed Preferences," IZA Discussion Papers 10908, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    5. Krekel, Christian & Zerrahn, Alexander, 2017. "Does the presence of wind turbines have negative externalities for people in their surroundings? Evidence from well-being data," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 82(C), pages 221-238.
    6. Ahfeldt, Gabriel M. & Pietrostefani, Elisabetta, 2017. "The compact city in empirical research: A quantitative literature review," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 83638, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
    7. Ifcher, John & Zarghamee, Homa & Graham, Carol Lee, 2016. "Local Neighbors as Positives, Regional Neighbors as Negatives: Competing Channels in the Relationship between Others' Income, Health, and Happiness," IZA Discussion Papers 9934, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    8. Cardoso, Rodrigo V. & Meijers, Evert J. & van Ham, Maarten & Burger, Martijn J. & de Vos, Duco, 2017. "The City as a Self-Help Book: The Psychology of Urban Promises," IZA Discussion Papers 10693, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    9. Chuluun, Tuugi & Graham, Carol, 2016. "Local happiness and firm behavior: Do firms in happy places invest more?," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 125(C), pages 41-56.
    10. Maguire, Karen & Winters, John V., 2016. "Energy Boom and Gloom? Local Effects of Oil and Natural Gas Drilling on Subjective Well-Being," IZA Discussion Papers 9811, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    11. Sasaki, Hiroki, 2016. "Do Japanese Citizens Move to Rural Areas Seeking a Slower Life? Differences between Rural and Urban Areas in Subjective Well-Being," 2016 Fifth AIEAA Congress, June 16-17, 2016, Bologna, Italy 242325, Italian Association of Agricultural and Applied Economics (AIEAA).
    12. Aaron Yelowitz, 2017. "Local housing costs and basic household needs," Empirical Economics, Springer, vol. 52(3), pages 901-923, May.
    13. Gabriel M. Ahlfeldt & Elisabetta Pietrostefani, 2017. "The Economic Effects of Density: A Synthesis," SERC Discussion Papers 0210, Spatial Economics Research Centre, LSE.
    14. Cristina Bernini & Alessandro Tampieri, 2017. "The Happiness Function in Italian Cities," CREA Discussion Paper Series 17-07, Center for Research in Economic Analysis, University of Luxembourg.
    15. Ahlfeldt, Gabriel M. & Pietrostefani, Elisabetta, 2017. "The economic effects of density: A synthesis," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 83628, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D00 - Microeconomics - - General - - - General
    • I00 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - General - - - General
    • J00 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - General - - - General
    • R00 - Urban, Rural, Regional, Real Estate, and Transportation Economics - - General - - - General

    NEP fields

    This paper has been announced in the following NEP Reports:


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:20291. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.