Sunday, September 26, 2021
Sept. 26, 2021

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Press Talk: Are you living the dream?

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Don’t worry. Be happy. But – really – how happy are you?

Well, according to a study released a few weeks ago, Vancouver was the 74th happiest city in the country.

This ranking didn’t sit all that well with some of my friends. At least those I heard from when I posted the ranking on my Facebook page.

“Well, they certainly did not talk to me!” said Scott Campbell, my former boss at The Columbian. Scott is an all-around great guy and has always been a staunch supporter of Vancouver.

“Who did they interview? Please share the questions,” commented former Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard. Pollard is another staunch supporter of the city. He once was so upset at what he perceived as a slight to Vancouver – a local Starbucks was selling Portland souvenir coffee mugs – he went there, bought the Portland mug, took it outside and smashed it on the sidewalk.

Pollard is also a great guy, despite occasionally bleeding a little University of Alabama crimson.

So what is this defending one’s hometown all about? I’ll get to that – I promise – but let’s unpack some of the statistics that got us to No. 74.

• • •

The personal finance website WalletHub released the study on happiness rankings. And that’s the first point. This was a study. Not a poll. So no one got a call asking how happy they were. I’m not sure a poll could get to a statistical happiness ranking for an entire city.

A study, on the other hand, relies on statistics. For example, you could reasonably conclude the lower a city’s unemployment rate, the happier those who live there might be. Here’s what WalletHub said about its study: “(We) drew upon the various findings of positive-psychology research. We examined each city based on 31 key indicators.”

Here are a few of those indicators: Depression rate, adequate sleep rate, sports participation, life expectancy, food insecurity, COVID-19 deaths per capita, poverty rate, share of households earning annual incomes above $75,000, divorce rate, and average leisure time spent per day.

For me, all of that makes a lot of sense.

It also should be noted that coming in 74th isn’t all that bad. WalletHub ranked 182 cities. But I get it. I mean, if you talked to a bunch of people who lived in Vancouver, I am pretty sure they’d say we belong in the top 10. But here’s the head-scratcher. If I were a betting man, I’d bet people in cities like Nashville, Atlanta, Tacoma, Spokane and Orlando would all say they belonged in the top 10 as well. And they all finished worse off than Vancouver.

So what’s going on? Why are residents so quick to defend their city?

• • •

Back in 1987 I was on an assignment for USA Today that visited all 50 states. Our team’s goal was to gauge the mood of the country. I didn’t think about it then, but we were really taking a poll. We tracked down everyday residents and local VIPs and essentially asked them “What’s the mood here in… (insert name of a gazillion cities and towns?)” By state number 20, the pattern was clear. The mood was good. No matter where we went, the mood was good. North Pole, Alaska? The mood was good. Elkhorn, Neb.? The mood was good.

The skeptical journalist in me was – well – skeptical. How could everybody, everywhere be so happy about where they live?

I recently turned to Washington State University to see if there was anyone who might have an idea. Although no one felt they had enough expertise to be quoted by name, I did receive an enlightening response.

“The general phenomenon Lou is describing is called cognitive dissonance, something like ‘If I chose to live in this area, it cannot possibly be crappy, only a nice place because I never would have voluntarily decided to live in a place that was not nice’ even though the locale may be undesirable to an objective eye.”

Bingo.

I should make clear there also is a second reason why residents say they love where they live: Their town really is a nice place! But that is more likely to be true in places like San Jose, Calif., South Burlington, Vt., and Madison, Wisc., all places that finished in WalletHub’s top 10.

• • •

All that being said, after going on that 50-state work assignment, I consider myself a bit of an expert on cities out there. And Vancouver is – in fact – a dang good place to be.

I remember when I returned to my Florida home after the 50-state visits, I was often asked about best places. And when the topic of weather came up, my answer always was the Pacific Northwest had the best summer weather of anyplace. By good fortune, 10 years after that trip, I was able to land a dream job as editor of The Columbian. And I could think of no better place to raise a child, enjoy the outdoors, meet terrific friends and have an eclectic city – Portland – a few miles away.

Damn the statistics. There’s no better place.

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