Along the path to collecting the research for my book, I discovered interesting facts about the happiest retirees on the block. In You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think, I share the conclusions from the data I collected, and one big piece is where these happy retirees choose to live.
From all accounts, if you want to live a joyful life during retirement, head to the ‘burbs. My research found that, of those I surveyed, the happiest of the lot live in or just outside of a city.
As it turns out, I’m not alone in this discovery. Other research points to the fact that a typical city slicker is significantly less happy than his suburban (or even rural) counterpart.
Two studies come to us on the topic from sociologist Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn. In a research project later published in Urban Studies, his team first investigated the relationship between where we choose to live and how happy – or unhappy – we are.
The researchers employed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2005 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. They used this system to measure happiness across more than 230 counties in the US.
Using statistical analysis, the study attempted to determine the cause of unhappiness in urban, suburban, and rural counties. Researchers investigated the question while controlling for the less desirable factors of city life, such as crime, poverty, and unemployment. They also tried to take the typical characteristics of cities themselves out of their findings, also controlling for things such as size, density, and heterogeneity.
This preliminary study found that folks who chose to live in counties outside metropolitan areas tended to report higher levels of happiness than those living in central cities. Numerically speaking, this was true by about .05 points on a scale from 1 to 4.
On the unhappy end of their scale, the researchers identified that the three unhappiest counties were all urban. Topping the list was St. Louis, followed by the Bronx and Brooklyn. The study mentioned the population density of these three, and it is miles above where happier folks tend to live. (For instance, the Bronx has a density of over 30,000 people per square mile! That’s a lot of people in a small space, my friends.)
At the other, happy end of the scale, three happy counties stood out. These include Shelby County, Tennessee, located just outside Memphis; Johnson County, Kansas, outside Kansas City; and Douglas County, Colorado, situated just outside Denver (which, by the way, is the home city of one of our Capital Investment Advisors offices!). These counties all scored 3.5 or higher on the happy scale.
You’ll notice that each of these places is located near a large city, but lets folks live their lives without feeling too claustrophobic because of high population densities. Plus, their proximity to the city means they get all of the accompanying benefits without the hassle.
Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn went on to conduct a follow-up study on the topic. In this second iteration, published in the journal Cities, he looked at where the tipping point may lie for a city. Specifically, he wanted to know precisely when an urban area gets so large that its residents become unhappy.
This study found that unhappiness levels increase once the population inside a city reaches hundreds of thousands of people. Researchers discovered that all 60 cities in the US with populations larger than 300,000 were the least happy cities in the country.
Where we choose to live, as both my and Okulicz-Kozaryn’s research shows, can make us joyful or miserable. So, it pays to choose wisely, for the sake of your wellbeing.
As for cities, there’s nothing inherently wrong with them, but they do have attendant stressors. Things like traffic, crowds, noise and higher costs of living are all bummers.
If you’re a “city mouse” who has the blues, my advice is to move to the neighboring suburbs. This is true whether you’re retired or still working. (And you don’t have to become a “country mouse,” either; moving outside the city doesn’t mean you have to go rural.) This transition to more open space and calm will push your happiness barometer up. And isn’t this something we all want from life?