Geography of Happiness

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Geography can have a major influence on happiness. Different geographic factors could influence the likelihood if one feels satisfied or less satisfied with their life could influence perceptions of happiness. This is not only evident in Western states but across many global regions, indicating factors of happiness may not be that different from country to country.

Happiness can have national and important economic impact in different countries, making its measure important for policy makers and economists. For instance, happiness can affect productivity or how one spends their time and money. There has been indications that happiness can be affected by urban and rural divide, where more rural locations could afford more leisure opportunities and have a greater sense of community engagement, thus increasing happiness. However, one recent study in the UK, using a generalized order logit on regional and local data from urban and rural regions, showed that regional rather than localized effects are 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 also generally happier than urban dwellers. This could suggest lifestyles and region-specific factors that include social networks and sense of community could affect happiness scores more greatly.[1]

Other studies have shown that a given range of factors could affect life satisfaction, with reasons when given factors weigh more on happiness scores. For instance, in Australia, it has been shown using geographic weighted regression, that living in areas where there are few people in one’s age range can have negative effects on happiness. This is defined as having potentially limited social capital, as one is likely to have fewer social contacts. Other regions that tend to be economically deprived are less happy due to their economic circumstances; however, once wealth is achieved at a basic or moderate level then people living in places that have greater human capital show greater life satisfaction. Human capital is defined as health (physical and mental) and general well-being. Living in areas with limited natural capital, that is access to nature and the natural environment, also affect happiness if economic satisfaction is achieved. 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) seem to also have low life satisfaction.[2] In Italy, similar results were shown for urban data, 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. In effect, this similarly suggests to the Australian study that human and social capital played important roles in happiness, provided people were also reasonably satisfied with their economic prospects.[3]

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

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.[4]

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.

Happiness can involve many factors. It is clear the built environment has a major impact, where traditional surveys and even face recognition approaches using social media indicate areas that are more natural or open have high levels of satisfaction. However, there are other important factors, including having a good connection to social networks, including family, while feeling healthy has a strong link to happiness. Living in poor areas could negatively affect happiness; however, levels of happiness could also be high in areas that were not rich, provided other factors such as human and social capital are present.


[1]    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.

[2]    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 Economics, 164, 106345.

[3]    For more on the Italian study on urban happiness, see:  Bernini, C., & Tampieri, A. (2019). Happiness in Italian cities. Regional Studies, 53(11), 1614–1624.

[4]    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 analysis. Transactions in GIS, 23(3), 450–480.



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