In Jason Karaian of City Lab’s recently-published article, he cites the pan-European survey on happiness, concluding that the data suggest an inverse relationship between individual happiness and local community closeness. While Karaian does close with an “Of course, happiness is determined by many more factors then [sic] whether you get along with your neighbors” disclaimer, the overall implications of his article are dangerous and irresponsible. Carried out to its logical conclusion, this claim suggests that local investment and community-building efforts are unnecessary, unimportant, and maybe even harmful.
At the most basic level, his data analysis falls short in that it makes no attempt to account for differences in wealth. Germany and the UK are both listed as nations where individuals report weak local connections and above-average overall life satisfaction while Latvia, Croatia, and Romania are listed as nations with the opposite- high degree of closeness with local area and below-average life satisfaction. If we look past the shortcomings of analyzing this data at the level of national averages- an insufficient method given intranational inequalities- and look just at national wealth measured in terms of GDP per capita, the differences between the countries chosen for comparison cannot be ignored. Using International Monetary Fund data to determine GDP per capita in US dollars, Germany and the UK land considerably above Latvia, Croatia, and Romania (Germany- $44,999; UK- $39,567 vs. Latvia- $15,205; Croatia- $13,561; Romania- $8,910). My hunch is that the stark inequality between the nations chosen for comparison has much more to do with overall life satisfaction than the reported strength of community closeness. Given the mobility that wealth enables, economic elites are able to operate with relative disregard to place. Not relying on social ties may work fabulously for the mobile members of the upper class, but it is not nearly as beneficial for the markedly immobile working-class poor.
Eric Klinenberg’s case study of the 1995 Chicago heat wave (read an interview about his book and work here) reminds us why community-building is important, especially for low-income individuals. During the week of July 14th-20th, 1995, 739 more Chicagoans than the average died and the heat was blamed. Klinenberg lists the US Centers for Disease Control’s description of the typical victim as someone who was “living alone, not leaving home daily, lacking access to transportation, being sick or bedridden, not having social contacts nearby, and of course not having an air conditioner.” Intuitively, the conditions of lacking access to transportation and not having an air conditioner apply most frequently to lower-income individuals, so poverty was clearly an important condition for susceptibility. More than that, though, Klinenberg demonstrated that despite the economic similarities between certain communities, those with lower death tolls had specific social and spatial conditions such as “high population density, busy commercial life in the streets, and vibrant public spaces,” while those with higher death tolls had been “abandoned—by employers, stores, and residents—in recent decades.” He continues, “[t]he social ecology of abandonment, dispersion, and decay makes systems of social support exceedingly difficult to sustain.” Disinvestment from a certain subset of low-income communities, then, produced a condition in which hundreds of people senselessly died while community building efforts in another set of low-income communities preserved lives, and that is a link between community-building and happiness.