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What Makes A City Stressful?

Forbes just came up with another of its “Most X City” surveys. This week, it listed the most stressful cities ( ). Nearly all of Forbes’ criteria, however, are silly in one respect or another.

Michael Lewyn | September 2, 2009, 9am PDT
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Forbes just came up with another of its "Most X City" surveys. This week, it listed the most stressful cities ( ). Nearly all of Forbes' criteria, however, are silly in one respect or another.

For example, Forbes considers population density an indication of high stress. But since low-density cities are more automobile-dependent, low density can create stress: constant long-distance driving is (at least to me) a source of stress, while being able to walk and use public transit might reduce stress for some people.

To Forbes, sunny days equal low stress. But while living in Florida, I was often in pain from the mild sunburns that occurred when I went out for a few minutes without sunscreen. Even after I started reducing this problem through sunscreen, I came to realize that having to constantly worry about skin cancer and whether I have slathered on enough sunscreen is highly stressful. Thus, the Florida sun is a stress inducer (at least for me) and not a stress reducer.

Forbes also lists unemployment and declining home prices as indicia of stress. To be sure, these things are problems if you are affected by them. But if you are employed, why would you be more stressed if unemployment is 9 percent than if it is 7 percent? To be sure, in extreme cases (i.e. where the economy is so bad that most employed people are worried about losing your job) high unemployment may stress out the employed. But otherwise, the pain of others will not affect your own well-being in this regard.

Finally, Forbes lists low air quality as stressful. But since most people have no idea how their city's air quality compares to other cities or to their ideal, they cannot possibly suffer stress from bad air.

So how could stress be measured? One stress generator is physical illness- and some of the factors cited by Forbes are surrogates for physical illness. For example, it suggests that air quality and low sunshine correlate with colds and minor respiratory ailments. But if it was possible to measure the frequency of such low-level illness, surely that would be a better way to measure stress.

Also, perceptions affect subjective well-being. So if survey evidence existed as to people's perceptions of air quality, such evidence would show whether some cities were more stressful than others. For example, if a survey asked "Are you concerned with air pollution in your city?" and Pittsburgh residents were more concerned than Austin residents, surely Pittsburgh would be more stressful than Austin in this regard- even if objectively, there was no evidence of a difference between the two city.

Similarly, perceptions of crime affect subjective well-being. For example, imagine a multi-city survey asking: "How safe do you feel walking near your residence at night?" Surely, a place where people felt unsafe is more stressful than one where people feel safe- regardless of the objective differences (or lack thereof) between the two cities. (Incidentally, the Forbes study omitted crime- perhaps because Forbes' other data consistently favor newer Sun Belt cities, and a focus on crime might dilute that story).

Of course, I suspect little public data exists as to these issues- which is why there is no easy way to decide whether Jacksonville is more stressful than Des Moines.


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