A recent survey labels New York City as the unhappiest American city. But it's a mistake to say NYC causes this condition.

New York CityA recent survey, spread wide amongst the fields of the internet, points to New York City as being populated with the most unhappy people. This has stuck in my craw, and not just because I live in NYC. While I don’t doubt that New York contains a huge number of unhappy people, it’s incorrect to imply that it’s the city’s fault.

New York City is not an easy place to live. It’s expensive. Really really expensive. Things constantly move at a viciously quick pace. People here, many of them, are more concerned with their careers than relationships, or anything else for that matter. It’s tough to catch a break, and hard to get a leg up. There is constant competition at work, no matter what field you are in, day in and day out. The city doesn’t lack critics.

But these are the kind of people New York City attracts. Whatever your career aspirations, you can probably reach the pinnacle of it in NYC. Ambition isn’t necessarily warm and cuddly, but it also isn’t a bad thing.

The trouble starts when you lose your perspective. And this happens to everyone in New York sooner or later. The daily grind wears on you. You’re tired all the time. Constant fatigue without a break dampens your spirit. Especially when everyone you meet is more focused on a career than a relationship. That’s what happened to me, and some of you reading this are nodding your heads.

I lived in New York in the 90’s. While it was great for the most part, I found I was unhappy there by year six. I blamed the city for this, and felt I had to get out.

I left for the Pacific Northwest. The scenery was breathtaking. The climate was beautiful, if a little wet. Surely, happiness awaited me here, amongst the lush green foliage. No. Next was the Mid-West. Salt of the Earth kind of folks. Plain and honest land, where a good work ethic will get you ahead. And all the space! Here there will be happiness! No.

And so I moved to the Great Lakes region. Back to an urban environment. Hustle and bustle, where things are always on the go. But all it did was remind me how much I missed New York City. What I found was I was still unhappy no matter where I lived.

I knew a guy like this in college. His area of study would require him to be in Sydney, where I was, for a semester. And somewhere else for the next. Then back to Sydney. While he was hanging with me, all he could talk about was how he couldn’t wait to get to the other place. Then he’d go there and call me to tell me how much it sucked and how he couldn’t wait to come back to Sydney.

This went on for four years. I used to joke about how he was never happy where he was. I was so close to grasping an essential truth of the human condition right there, but managed to miss it. If only there were a colloquial folk saying about this phenomenon. Perhaps involving a fence and the color of grass.

New York City

What I was slow to learn, and am still learning, is that we make our own happiness. It doesn’t matter where we are, it matters who we are. Yes, our environment is obviously a factor, but it’s only a factor, not the whole situation.

There are wonderful things in New York City. Food. Fashion. Sports. Entertainment. Finance. Anything you can think of is here. America is here. The Freedom Tower. The Brooklyn Bridge. The Empire State Building. The Statue of Liberty. To blame New York City for your unhappiness is beyond ridiculous.

I was previously unhappy in New York because of me, not the city. I’d made some bad calls, and couldn’t see that the responsibility for them laid with me. I desperately tried to project the reasons for my unhappiness onto someone or something else. NYC took the blame, and so I ran from it. But really, I was only running from myself. An impossible task.

It took me years and years to figure this out. It’s something I am still working on, honestly. I’ve learned some lessons, admitted mistakes, and accepted who I am. Those are keys to my happiness, far more than where I live.

I also don’t regret having lived elsewhere. I made lifelong friends everywhere I went, and my life was greatly enriched for doing so. None of this is meant to put down places that aren’t New York City. None of those places were to blame for my unhappiness either. I’m glad I got to know those people and those places.

I live here again. I have a family and am happier than I have ever been. And just like when I was unhappy, NYC is a factor, but it’s still not ultimately responsible for the entire situation. I wish I could tell everyone how to find happiness. I can only tell you what worked for me, and that took a long time and a lot of work.

Everyone is different. Every place is different. And finding true happiness is a subjective path for everyone. But it involves honesty. Accepting responsibility for what you can do, and asking for help for what you can’t. Fear is normal, everyone feels it, and it takes true courage to face it. I am not always right about everything. Neither are you. We are all of us, always learning.

New York City can’t create happiness. Only you can do that. If you can’t do that in NYC, there’s nothing wrong with you, nor is there anything wrong with New York. We are all only members of the human race. And that race may be long, but in the end, it’s only with yourself.

“Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

Chad R. MacDonald has a degree in English literature from Cape Breton University and subsequently received a full scholarship to AMDA in New York City. He is a former security professional, veteran of the hospitality industry, and experienced in both the arts as well as administration.He has been writing all his life, likes baseball, hockey, literature, science, the arts, and marine photography.Chad lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son and their gigantic cat.


  1. Well, I’ve been here all my life, for the most part, NYC makes me unhappy. Landlord-tenant laws are ridiculous. I got a tenant in a newly renovated apartment and they stopped paying immediately. I have to wait months before I can get an eviction, causing me to lose thousands. Then, Sanitation makes me unhappy. If there is so much as a cup or paper bag on the sidewalk, that’s a $100 ticket. As a driver, parking laws make me unhappy. Ticketed while trying to get a quarter for the meter and a 20-block radius commercial parking only in the fashion district so I cant even take 10 min to pick up some cheap tees, socks, and underwear. As a Black/Hispanic person, NYPD makes me unhappy from Anthony Baez to Eric Garner and beyond. I’ve walked pass bloods, crips, latin kings, folk, and the many random cliques that won’t hesitate to rob you and the only gang I worry about actually murdering me is the NYPD.

    I think it’s easy to be happy in NYC if you just work, rent, and take public transportation and your skin isn’t too dark.

    Let me add, when I did take public transportation, the MTA made me unhappy. I watched stations in midtown get renovated more than once while stations in the outer boros fell into disrepair. Grand Central got new art installations but the E. 180th st stop on the 2 line couldn’t get a paint job or the thick orange/yellow line youre supposed to stay behind get redrawn.

    So, I have to say, it is NYC – the government, the politicians, the bureaucracy – that makes me, at least, be unhappy.

  2. I did post-doctoral work in New York, San Francisco and Paris—the shortest stay of the three was six months in San Francisco. All three are great, great cities.

    Not long ago, a Francophile friend of mine asked if, given the choice, I would rather live in Paris or New York. Aside from the fact that Paris gives one much easier access to other parts of Europe, I told her that it would be New York City. Hands-down, New York City. Not even a second thought, New York City.

    Whatta’ town!

    In the end, if personal “happiness” depended on place alone, there would be far more unhappy people than there are. Quite frankly, I think I have it in me to make my own happiness if not wherever, then almost wherever. I mean, for God’s sake, I retired and came home to Columbia, South Carolina and I’m, well, happy. That alone ought to make my point.

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