Geography of Happiness

Mark Altaweel


Happiness is not just a personally important factor in our lives but happiness has important implications for economies, countries, sustainability, and national priorities. Geography plays an important role in happiness, as it shapes our perceptions and feeling about a place. While individual and regional factors and perceptions often play into how happiness is shaped, the visual and built environment around us have important roles in our happiness.

Most research has demonstrate that the built environment in cities can have significant impact on one’s long-term happiness. Factors such as communities with poor transit options and high unemployment evident on the streets, perhaps not surprisingly, can lead to long-term unhappiness. Communities that feel neglected in improvement policies, such as areas with higher retiree rates that have less resources, also similarly show high levels of unhappiness in a study conducted in Turkey.[1] 

Map of human happiness scores at world tourist attractions. Source: Kang et al., 2019.
Map of human happiness scores at world tourist attractions. Source: Kang et al., 2019.

In a recent study in China, short-term or momentary happiness, a phenomenon less widely studied and related to more immediate feeling or attitudes, has been shown to be significantly affected by micro-environmental variables. This includes temperature, levels of noise, population around individuals, types of points of interest and their density in the area, and the types  of visual appeal of street intersections. Additionally, visual buffers, that is visual distance of factors affecting happiness, are found to be within 100 meters of where the individual is in many cases, indicating that the immediate areas are often very significant in affecting how one might feel about a place.[2] 

Important Ramification of Happiness for Countries 

Happiness has important ramifications for countries, including for political parties and national politics. While regional or country-level factors, such as socio-political norms, media discourse, and political historical backgrounds, can affect how people feel about a place and their votes, individuals factors, such as one’s own well being and attitudes about a place affect how a person votes or feels about living in a place.[3] 

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One study showed that important global goals, such as improving sustainability and climate change mitigation, within a given country or region should take happiness into account in development strategies. In this case, while monitoring and shaping energy supply, energy demand, and urban and regional planning are important, satisfaction with how these are planned for and appear to a community needs to be balanced with climate change mitigation to be more effective and better help limit gases that contribute to climate change. In other words, if people in communities are made to feel that their wants and needs are addressed, then it becomes generally easier to maintain wider sustainability strategies.[4]

Similarly, attitudes about a place and personal happiness also have national importance and economic impact in different countries, making its measure important for policy makers and economists.

Happiness can affect productivity or how one spends their time and money. There has been indications that happiness can be affected by the type of place one lives, such as rural or urban locations, where more rural locations could afford more leisure opportunities and have a greater sense of community engagement. In other words, such rural places tend to more easily increase happiness.

Happiness in Rural Versus Urban Areas

However, one recent study in the UK, using a generalized ordered logit on regional and local data from urban and rural regions, showed that regional factors, rather than localized effects such as appearance of local areas, are even more likely to affect happiness. Looking at factors such as income, health, and leisure, those who lived in the West Midlands reported far greater satisfaction than other rural or more urban areas.

When comparing regional and urban effects, the regional effect was more influential on respondents, although those who lived in more rural areas are still generally more happy than their urban counterparts. Lifestyles and region-specific factors that include social networks and community integration appear to affect happiness scores greatly.[5]

How Demographics Affects Happiness

Other studies suggest that happiness is affected by the types and ages of people around us. For instance, research in Australia showed that living in areas with few people in one’s age category can have a negative effect on happiness. This is related to social connectivity and community, as a limited number of people in one’s age group may limit social contacts. Regions with hazardous jobs, such as mining, and those that attract generally one type of gender for work (e.g., mining has tended to employ mostly males) also create low life satisfaction.[6] 

In Italy, similar results were demonstrated for urban regions, with results showing health and family relationships appearing to have the most impact on happiness, where respondents who lived near their family and areas they deemed as healthy indicated generally happier levels. Similar to the Australian study, human and social capital played important roles in happiness levels, provided people were also reasonably satisfied with their economic prospects.[7]

Analyzing Human Faces to Understand How Geography is Related to Happies

Other work has begun to use big data and millions of images of human faces to begin to study how geography is related to happiness. One work looked at social mined data from Europe, North America, Asia, and elsewhere with geotagged images where it then spatially clustered data to assess which regions may show greater happiness.

The work utilized computer vision techniques that assess facial metrics, where the work could then correlate through regression given factors with perceived happiness based on facial expressions. Area with more open spaces and amusements, such as amusement parks, perhaps not surprisingly, generally showed greater levels of happiness, at least based on facial expressions.[8]

Happiness index using facial expressions. Source: Kang et al., 2019.
Happiness index using facial expressions. Source: Kang et al., 2019.

Happiness is not a simple variable that can be measured by one metric. However, we can determine that variables such as the built environment, wealth, the social cohort around you, connection to one’s family in an area, access to leisure areas, and general perception and feeling of health in an area can all have a major impact on happiness. Living in poor areas or areas that give a perception of negligence in resources could negatively affect happiness. Nevertheless, a positive is that factors that may negatively drive down happiness could be overcome by the fact that other factors such as human and social capital enable greater happiness.  While happiness is not something that is easily measured, studies show its measurement is vital for national well being, economy, and even environmental sustainability.


[1]    For more on how long-term happiness is affected, see:  Mavruk C, Kıral E, Kıral G. Spatial Effects Over Time-Framed Happiness. J Happiness Stud. 2021 Feb;22(2):517–54. 

[2]    For more on the patterns of short-term or momentary happiness, see:  Su L, Zhou S, Kwan M-P, Chai Y, Zhang X. The impact of immediate urban environments on people’s momentary happiness. Urban Studies. 2021 Feb 10;004209802098649. 

[3]    For more on how happiness affects national politics and attitudes, see:  Koeppen L, Ballas D, Edzes A, Koster S. Places that don’t matter or people that don’t matter? A multilevel modelling approach to the analysis of the geographies of discontent. Reg Sci Policy Pract. 2021 Apr;13(2):221–45. 

[4]    For more on happiness and national sustainability goals, see:  Kamei M, Wangmo T, Leibowicz BD, Nishioka S. Urbanization, carbon neutrality, and Gross National Happiness: Sustainable development pathways for Bhutan. Cities. 2021 Apr;111:102972. 

[5]    For more on factors that affect happiness in rural/urban and regional locations, see:  Hand, C. (2019). Spatial influences on domains of life satisfaction in the UK. Regional Studies, 1–12.

[6]    For more on geographic weighted factors and how multiple factors can shape  happiness in Australia, see: Kubiszewski, I., Jarvis, D., & Zakariyya, N. (2019). Spatial variations in contributors to life satisfaction: An Australian case study. Ecological Economics164, 106345.

[7]    For more on the Italian study on urban happiness, see:  Bernini, C., & Tampieri, A. (2019). Happiness in Italian cities. Regional Studies53(11), 1614–1624.

[8]    For more on methods and results using facial recognition approaches and correlating those results with geography, see:  Kang, Y., Jia, Q., Gao, S., Zeng, X., Wang, Y., Angsuesser, S., et al. (2019). Extracting human emotions at different places based on facial expressions and spatial clustering analysisTransactions in GIS23(3), 450–480.


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.