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Recently on JSTOR Daily, we’ve talked about commuter happiness, and ways to mitigate the stress of a long daily trek. While people deserve the choice of living where they’d like, there are obvious benefits to living closer to work. In the Washington Post this weekend, Christopher Ingraham explored a few other measures of happiness related to where you live (at least in the 18-to-28-year-olds studied).

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The “urban-rural happiness gradient” states, generally, that rural dwellers, suburb inhabitants, and those in small and large cities, run from happiest to least, in that order. However, Ingraham also reports that this trend is reversed for those with the highest IQs: they report the most satisfaction with their urban lives. A big factor in all of this is socialization: people with lots of social interactions report more happiness, except, again, high-IQ individuals, who are less happy the more partying they do. As Ingraham puts it: “When smart people spend more time with their friends, it makes them less happy.”

The authors of the study Ingraham quotes suggest that a higher IQ reflects a better adaptive skill, an ability to contend with the faster pace and more complex lifestyle of the city-dweller. Maybe IQs correlate with more efficient socializing, too.

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Plenty of other intersections can be measured—for example, poverty and race. Paul Amato and Jiping Zuo showed distinct patterns across white and black folk in urban America in the 1990s: rural African Americans were happier than their urban counterparts, while urban whites were happier than their rural counterparts. They also found patterns in family status: urban married women (without kids) were notably high in well-being, even the poorest ones; rural single men were miserable. If nothing else, it quashes some romantic notions of the Thoreau-esque hermit.

Another factor is age: Donald Crider, Fern Willits, and Conrad Kanagy looked at changing perceptions of urban and rural appeal throughout life. Their measurements in the 1970s and ‘80s followed people from their forties to their fifites, to see whether priorities changed over time. Income, again, had an effect, but access to a large friendship base was more important, especially to rural subjects. Interestingly, income became more important over time to the urban group.  (We can wonder whether this reflects the ‘80s more than the age group.)

The authors also dispelled a couple of myths about “rural mystique”: that access to family members was important for happiness, and that being surrounded by members of one’s religious group had an influence.

What about this question of IQ, then? Since IQ most reflects education levels and familiarity with Western testing methods, we can simply ask whether education makes people happier. The short answer, of course, is yes; the long answer is that education is the cause of higher income, better relationships, and a different definition of what “happiness” actually is.

Wan-chi Chen, in a recent study, looked at all the different ways education affects happiness. Her research doesn’t divide by urban and rural, but it does measure “cosmopolitanism,” or a concern for global affairs past one’s own neighbourhood or social group. The results include a few things replicated in other studies, such as that income reflects happiness differently in the context of the region’s GDP and employment rate. Chen found education correlates with well-being through social capital and cosmopolitanism, much greater than through income alone:

The results suggest that education may enhance an individual’s capability to have greater involvement with the wider world, i.e., more extensive interpersonal relationships rather than family and neighborhood ties and a more open attitude toward divergent cultural experiences rather than just local areas. More importantly, greater involvement with the outside world is associated with significantly better subjective well-being. The implications can be drawn from the findings that education enables individuals not only to earn a better living but also to live a better life.


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The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Summer, 1992), pp. 229-240
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Midwest Sociological Society
Social Indicators Research, Vol. 24, No. 3 (May, 1991), pp. 253-268
Published by: Springer
Social Indicators Research, Vol. 106, No. 1 (March 2012), pp. 117-131
Published by: Springer