Sunday, September 20, 2015

Do major cities create unhappy Australians?

Sydney's eastern suburbs
Major cities create unhappy Australians. That headline jumped out at me when I was doing an internet search recently. The source was The Melbourne Newsroom – a media unit at the University of Melbourne. The news release tells us that Australians who live in rural locations or towns of less than 1,000 residents “have significantly higher life satisfaction than those living in major cities”. (Major cities have more than 100,000 residents.)

The news release is linked to a recent publication based on the highly regarded HILDA survey undertaken by Melbourne University. The survey results suggest a boost to average life satisfaction (on the 11 point scale from 0 to 10) of 0.127 points for females and 0.108 points for males from living in a rural location or town rather than a major city. That might seem small, but it appears to imply that living in a major city has an adverse impact on life satisfaction of similar magnitude to being unemployed or divorced.

The authors of the HILDA publication conclude:
“other things being equal, the major cities are the least desirable places to live”.

The qualification in that statement is important. The authors go on to point out that the undesirability of living in cities is somewhat counteracted by the fact that the major cities contain areas of greatest socio-economic advantage.  Life satisfaction is influenced by the effects of the relative socio-economic advantage or disadvantage of the area in which an individual lives.

The main reason I was sceptical when I read the headline “Major cities create unhappy Australians” was because earlier in the day I had read a paper by Arthur Grimes and Marc Reinhardt which found that the differences between life satisfaction in rural and urban areas in other high-income OECD countries disappeared in a model controlling for other variables. The other variables controlled for were own income and reference income (mean income within a country of individuals of the same gender, age and employment status).

A study examining differences between life satisfaction of rural and urban residents of Victoria, undertaken a decade ago by Dianne Vella-Brodrick et al, also found that the significance of rurality disappeared when other variables were controlled for. The other variables in the model included satisfaction with community and perceived level of satisfaction with distance from services.

In a post I wrote on this blog a few years ago I considered the differences at a regional level between the stories told by a range of wellbeing indicators in Victoria. The (rural) local government areas (LGAs) with higher average subjective well-being (SWB) also tended to have higher ratings in terms of satisfaction with being part of the community, social support (ability to get help from friends), citizen engagement (e.g. attending town meetings, writing to politicians), safety (e.g. feeling safe walking in the local area at night) and volunteering. However, those LGAs tended to have lower household income, lower satisfaction with work-life balance and less acceptance of diverse cultures. The latter variables tended to have higher values in Melbourne and in LGAs close to Melbourne.

Do those results suggest major cities create unhappy Australians? I don’t think so. As discussed in a more recent post, major cities in Australia are ranked among the most liveable in the world. People who choose to live in major cities may well do so for good reasons, in full knowledge that they are making choices that are likely to reduce their life satisfaction. Life satisfaction is important, but it is not the only argument in individuals’ utility functions. For example, it can be rational for people to sacrifice some life satisfaction now to obtain more life satisfaction later (e.g. by accumulating wealth to fund their retirement in a more pleasant location). There is also some evidence that many people are prepared to sacrifice their own happiness in making location choices in order to provide better opportunities for their children.


nidupy1982 said...

To me the statements, "major cities create unhappy Australians" seems abstract. The happiness is the state of mind and it is not the state of the environment. Of course there are certain things which is related to our happiness but that does not confirm that cities will make the people unhappy. Even in the rural parts of the country, people are living with lots of hardships and challenges. This directly influence their level of happiness. Although the research has indicated that rural people are happy but there needs to be more research based evidences that major cities make people unhappy.

Winton Bates said...

Good points Yeshi.. My guess is that the apparent difference in well-being is attributable to factors that are not directly related to where people live. There is survey data available that someone could use to clarify the situation.