Bryan Caplan  

Suburban Happiness

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Counter-examples to the claim that happiness research pushes for left-wing policies keep multiplying. It's well-known that social interaction is an important cause of happiness. Now it looks like suburban sprawl - the bane of leftist land use activitists - is a better environment for socializing than compact cities:

"We found that interaction goes down as population density goes up. So, turning it around, it says that interaction is higher where densities are lower," says Jan Brueckner, an economics professor at UC Irvine who led the study. "What that means is suburban living promotes more interaction than living in the central city."

Makes sense to me. When I lived in apartments, I never met anyone. People, people everywhere, but not a familiar face to greet. Now that I live in a house, I know my whole neighborhood. (And they know me - I'm the eccentric who wears shorts and flip-flops in the winter).

P.S. I've long thought that most foreign tourists to the U.S. get a deeply misleading picture of American life because they mostly visit big cities like NYC. To see the clean, convenient, spacious life most Americans enjoy, you've got to leave the cities and explore suburbia.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Giant Step writes:

"To see the clean, convenient, spacious life most Americans enjoy, you've got to leave the cities and explore suburbia."

I am dubious that most Americans live in suburbs. Any figures?

More to the point, I think you (And Brueckner) are confusing causation with correlation. This is correlation:

"We found that interaction goes down as population density goes up. So, turning it around, it says that interaction is higher where densities are lower."

This is causation:
"What that means is suburban living promotes more interaction than living in the central city."

The last statement does not follow from the first two. It is entirely plausible (likely?) that those living in suburbia, on average, have more developed social skills. I can think of many reasons, but I bet you can too and so I won't waste my time.

Bruce G Charlton writes:

RE: Shorts in winter.

The dilemma - shorts inside or longs outside?

The answer Men's Goas Double Convertible from rohan.co.uk - shorts with zip-detachable long extensions...

rvman writes:

According to the US Census bureau, the US is approximately 50% suburban, 30% urban, and 20% rural. So 'most' is strong, but 'a majority' would not be. Actually, given that their definition causes 'suburbs' to have population density averaging about 200 per sq. mile, and urban areas are 350 and falling, I suspect many of those 'urban' live suburban lifestyles, only closer to downtown.

US Census report

BT writes:

"And they know me - I'm the eccentric who wears shorts and flip-flops in the winter"

I am sure everyone knew you in the apartments as well but simply steered clear.

randy writes:

Recently I read a piece about diversity increasing paranoia. Most of our densely populated areas are ethnically/racially diverse places. I wonder if these researchers gave this any consideration?

George writes:

Right! This is not a good observation. I wear flipflops and shorts every time the weather permits. And I live in a flat. Being in a densely populated city gives me the opportunity to go out (not that far out) and speak to people. I've also lived in the suburbs. I spoke to my neibors too. But in a city you talk about the real problems and in the suburbs yiu talk nonsense.

There's not much connection if all you talk about is house prices and lawn mowers.

There's a massive connection if you talk about your feelings and problems and pains and sorrows and happiness and all that.

A city like athmosphere is much more conductive to the real talk (the one that connects you) thatn the smalltalk (the one that disconnects you).

Which is why cities are big on the continent ( everybody you'ew likeky to talk on the continent is in the same position) than in Britain (you're there while you're young and then you piss off to the suburbs).

Vincent Clement writes:

Come now Bryan, the study does not conclude that suburbs are a better environment for socializing. It merely concludes that your likelihood of interacting with other people increases as density decreases. The study makes a comment on the quantity not the quality of those interactions. Apples versus oranges.

Kelli writes:

I would like to know a couple of things about this study:
1. What cities and attached suburbs were used in the study?
2. Were any men, singles, and childless couples interviewed in this study and left out of the article?

I grew up in the 'burbs and realized how sheltered my life was when I saw the light and moved into downtown DC. I was the diversity in my SE neighborhood brought to light when the neighborhood grocery store did not carry any hair, cosmetic, and hosiery products for caucasians. I thrived in the diversity of the neighborhood seen every weekend at Eastern Market. Probably because my family moved every three years or so but we did not know our neighbors. We knew people from school and church but not our neighbors. Because my urban neighborhood was a mixture of houses and my one apartment building, I met everyone walking to and from the metro station because people still sat on their porches/stoops and chatted. My family living in suburban Maryland for 17 years don't know their neighbors because they sit in traffic four hours a day and go from car to house. They interact with other soccer parents but with only one child left at home, that is getting more rare. Admittedly, a stay at home parent will have more interaction with other stay at home parents at school events and other kid centered activities, at gyms and grocery stores, and places of worship. But the spouse who is commuting back and forth may not have the same luxury. What if there are no children in the house? My single or childless friends who live in surburbs for some reason find themselves excluded from a lot of the socializing. Basically, socializing comes down to the individual. If there is no personal motivation to get out and join in, anyone can be lonely in the middle of millions.

Diego writes:

Did they try to address endogeneity? I assume people are not allocated to either densely populated cities (i.e. NYC) or suburbs with scattered population independently (i.e. randomly) of their inner capacity to generate happiness from being around a few familiar neighboors.

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