This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Spatial Demography of Happiness

The Washington Post generated a very interesting article yesterday on the happiness indices of cities in the United States. Recognizing that bad news sells better than good news, they emphasized unhappiness, but that's not important right now. 
The below interactive map uses data from a recent working paper on happy (and unhappy) cities by economists Edward Glaeser and Oren Ziv at Harvard and Joshua Gottlieb at the University of British Columbia. Their research mines responses from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a national survey run by the CDC that has fueled most of what we know about the economics of happiness.
That last comment is not quite true. Richard Easterlin at USC, and a Past President of the Population Association of America, was one of the pioneers in these analyses, drawing especially on questions in the General Social Survey administered by the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago. Indeed, these kinds of questions are at the heart of the behavioral economic approach of people like David Kahneman, a Nobel prize winner in Economics.

Particularly striking in the map is that people living in cities in the southern states report higher levels of happiness than people in the northern states or along the Pacific Coast, for that matter. It is not easy to explain this, as the authors point out, but Easterlin's work suggests that we first need to control responses for the age and income of respondents. His research shows that perceived happiness varies over the life cycle, so we need to know where a person is in terms of life cycle, not just geographic location, if we are to understand the data. Also, keep in mind that one of the key reasons to know more about happiness or unhappiness is to know if people act on the basis of their perceived happiness. The jury seems still to be out on that issue as well. In other words, there's lots of work to do--and that will make someone happy, I'm sure.

[This is a very nice map--go to the article link to view it interactively to see where your city fits in. Responses from San Diego put it right in the middle ground between happy and unhappy. Would we call that laid back?]

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