The Geography of Happiness

Geography and other environmental factors can affect residents' happiness, a new study shows. One place that correlates with more happiness is the line between rural and urban areas, where residents may benefit from the best of both worlds.


[imgcontainer] [img:Happy_Days_Map.png] [source]Source: Country Health Rankings and Roadmaps, 2014 edition

The map charts the number of mentally unhealthy days per capita per month in most U.S. counties (some are excluded because of lack of data). Greener counties have better overall mental health, while red ones have worse mental health. Yellow counties are in the middle of the pack in the number of days per capita that residents report being mentally unhealthy each month. Click the map to make it interactive and explore county-level data.

Are people who live in the countryside happier than their city counterparts?

In some cases, yes, according to a new study about the impact of geography and other environmental factors on mental health.

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University looked at the reported mental health of people living across the spectrum of U.S. counties – from city centers of major urban areas to sparsely populated areas located far from the city lights.

What they found is a “sweet spot” for happiness – as measured by self-reported mental health assessments. Those locations – where folks are, all things considered, more likely to be happier than other Americans – are rural counties that are located next to metropolitan counties.

The research stopped short of explaining the finding, but reasoned that such places might offer residents access to helpful city amenities without subjecting residents to the stresses sometimes associated with living in a big urban area.

“The general conclusion about county-population and location is that living in a non-metro county of medium to large population size, and adjacent to a metro core, is associated with greater happiness,” wrote Stephan J. Goetz, Meri Davlasheridze and Yicheol Han in a paper published online in Social Indicators Research.

To get a sense of how happy or unhappy residents were, the researchers tracked the number of days residents of U.S. counties reported having poor mental health.

(The map above shows the per capita mentally unhealthy days, as reported via the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps project. The redder the county, the greater the number of poor mental-health days reported per capita. Green counties had fewer mental unhealthy days per capita. The study used data from 2002-2008. This map is from the most recent County Health Rankings data. Click the map to explore data for each county included in the study.)

Researchers correlated mental health with a number of environmental factors. In addition to tracking the rural and urban status of the counties, they also looked at poverty rates, income levels, weather-related data like number of days of sunshine and other climate information, and whether the counties had experienced droughts or other natural disasters.

To ensure that the study was measuring these environmental factors, the researchers controlled for a variety of other variables – such as age – that have been shown to affect happiness.

The analysis showed that residents of large, core, urban areas tended to have more mentally unhealthy days per capita, on average, than other counties. The number of unhealthy days dropped for counties outside core cities. A high-water mark of happiness attributable to geography occurred in counties that were rural but adjacent to metropolitan counties.

The study used the USDA Economic Research Services Rural Continuum Codes to measure how rural or urban counties were.

The study confirmed other research that has strongly correlated poverty with poor mental health.

Another key finding is that natural disasters affect community mental health, said Geotz, one of the authors.

Previous studies have confirmed that families who experience direct loss from disasters like hurricanes and floods suffer mental-health stresses. The new study showed that disasters may go beyond affecting individuals to affecting the community at large.