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What Makes a Good Place to Live?

Discover how your living environment affects your well-being.

Key points

  • The most livable cities have high-quality public health care and education systems, good housing, and good public transport infrastructure.
  • The lack of green spaces, air pollution, noise, and low neighbourhood safety contribute to higher prevalence of depressive mood in urban areas.
  • People tend to be more satisfied and happier in places where their values and personality are congruent with their cultural environment.

The end of November in Copenhagen is a time when the city becomes the epitome of hygge, which, in recent years, has become one of the most fashionable export products of Denmark and has generated an endless stream of books dedicated to teaching enthusiastic foreigners how to create this special feeling and lifestyle. Despite overcast skies and a slight drizzle, there’s a sense of warmth and content when I walk around Copenhagen, its streets filled with sparkling Christmas lights and the irresistible smell of gløgg and bratwurst spreading from the Christmas markets dotted around the city’s squares. No wonder that Copenhagen was one of the very few European cities that was named as one of the top 10 of the most livable cities around the globe before the pandemic hit. It is hard not to imagine yourself happily living there, cycling around the city with a slightly battered yet stylish bicycle and eating freshly baked kanelsnegls for breakfast (nearly) every day but still somehow managing to retain the slim and fit figure of the typical Danish woman.

What Makes a City Livable and How Can It Be Measured?

For several years now, The Economist Intelligence Unit has ranked more than 140 cities around the globe on their quality of life conditions. In addition to Copenhagen and Vienna, which topped the ranking for three years (2018–2020), the top-10 most livable cities list in 2019 was exclusively made up of cities in Australia (Melbourne, Sidney, and Adelaide), Canada (Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto), and Japan (Osaka and Tokyo). As argued in the report, these are all medium-sized cities in affluent democratic countries, which have high-quality public health care and education systems, good housing, and good public transport infrastructure, which is further supported by low levels of corruption and crime. The pandemic and resulting lockdowns had a big impact on the livability index—in the latest 2021 survey, six of the top-10 livable cities were either in Australia or New Zealand where tight border controls and geographic advantage proved effective in keeping the community spread of the virus low and allowed people to carry on with their normal lives without too many (if any) social restrictions.

Northern Exposure

Australia and New Zealand are attractive places to live not just due to their excellent public health care and great work–life balance but also because of their pleasant climate, featuring warm summers and mild winters. Although many studies have shown that weather does not reliably impact people’s judgments of life satisfaction, there is a common belief that living in warm and sunny climates makes people happier. On the contrary, it seems that people are the happiest far up in the Northern Hemisphere amidst darkness and coldness, where daylight hours in winter can be reduced to as little as three to four hours and where people have to dig their cars out of snow each morning for a large part of the year. The islands of Orkney, Shetland, and the Outer Hebrides have consistently topped the UK Office for National Statistics’ annual well-being report over the past 10 years, in all three areas of personal well-being: life satisfaction, happiness, and the feeling that the things done in life are worthwhile. On a more global scale, Northern Europe continues to be the happiest place in the world, with Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden all firmly ranked among the top-eight happiest countries according to the latest World Happiness Report. Furthermore, six out of the top-10 cities across the world according to their inhabitants’ evaluations of their subjective well-being are also located in Scandinavia.

The Effect of Latitude on Well-Being

But New Zealand and Australia do rank very high on the 2021 happiness index, occupying the 9th and 12th positions, respectively, among nearly 150 countries. And two of the top-10 happiest cities in 2020 were located either in New Zealand or Australia. Thus, as shown by a study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science in 2019, it looks like people are happier and more satisfied with their lives in places that are closer to either the North or South Pole. But, as the authors of the study argue, it is of course not geographic latitude as such that makes people less or more satisfied with their lives. Rather, latitude represents a diverse set of ecological and social variables such as thermal demand/comfort, levels of rainfall, pathogen prevalence, and national wealth. All of these ecological factors in combination were able to explain 65 percent of variation in life satisfaction in a study of more than 100 countries, whereas latitude on its own only added 1 percent to the prediction. Apart from these effects, as indicated by the World Happiness Report, people in the happiest countries enjoy higher levels of freedom and national wealth, live longer and healthier lives, have stronger social connections, and are more trustful of other people.

Is It Time to Leave the City Behind?

One of the factors that has emerged as a significant predictor of well-being in recent decades is urbanisation. While the adverse effects of city life on various physical health problems such as lung and respiratory problems due to air pollution are well established, there is also increasing evidence of urban life affecting people’s mental health and well-being. A follow-up study of 4.4 million Swedes showed that people living in the most densely populated urban areas had 12 to 20 percent and 68 to 77 percent more risk of developing depression and psychosis than those living in the least urbanised areas, respectively. These differences remained significant even after adjustment for relevant socioeconomic and demographic factors.

This of course begs the question of what makes cities such perilous places to live? A recent systematic review of existing research published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry showed that it is primarily the lack of green spaces, air pollution, noise, and poor housing quality that contribute to a higher prevalence of depressive mood in urban areas. Furthermore, an environment-wide association study for mental well-being in the Netherlands found that, in addition to socioeconomic status, it was neighbourhood safety that most strongly contributed to differences in well-being. In addition, it has been also suggested that lower levels of well-being in cities may be due not only to environmental but also to social factors, such as people having smaller social networks and lower level of perceived social support in urban areas, compared with small-town and rural life.

Finding Your Place in the World

While various environmental and socioeconomic factors certainly matter in making some places happier and more livable than others, this is not the whole story. According to the person–culture match hypothesis, people are more satisfied and happier in places where their individual attributes are congruent with their cultural environment. In other words, all things being equal, people who match more closely the prevalent values, beliefs, and personalities of other people in their culture or physical area experience higher levels of well-being and self-esteem. Thus, at the end of the day, it is really all about finding our place in the world, one that suits us and our needs and allows us to live our best lives. Perhaps it is time for me to keep a closer eye on job postings in Copenhagen?


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