How you feel about your neighborhood depends more on you than anything else

Are you happy with your local neighborhood? Some people living in the city long for rolling hills and rural acres, but at the same time, many small-town residents can’t help but fantasize about urban living. We all spend a whole lot of time in our respective neighborhoods, and with that familiarity usually comes either a sense of comfort or contempt.

Surprisingly, an interesting new study from Michigan State University finds that whether or not you like your neighborhood has very little to do with the neighborhood itself. Instead, an individual’s personal views on their neighborhood are shaped much more prominently by their personality and perception of their surroundings.

“It’s all in our heads,” says study author Zachary Neal, associate professor of psychology at MSU, in a university release. “Contrary to what many would think, characteristics of your neighborhood have little to do with how satisfied you are with it.”

The team at MSU analyzed a huge assortment of data encompassing 27 earlier studies spread across 11 different countries from all over the world. In all, information on over 400,000 people was included in this project. Each one of those earlier studies had focused on how much of a person’s satisfaction with their neighborhood is shaped by the neighborhood itself.

“I was interested in what makes people satisfied with their neighborhoods and whether there’s anything the residents or city planners could do to improve satisfaction,” Neal explains. “Previous research about what matters has been mixed, which made me wonder if this research is looking for something that doesn’t exist and that maybe neighborhoods really don’t have much to do with how satisfied people say they are.”

So, via a complex meta-analytical method, Neal and his team pooled all of those studies’ findings together to construct a comprehensive estimate of just how much a neighborhood’s characteristics, services, and perks influence residents’ satisfaction. Almost unbelievably, that analysis concluded that such features, including street quality, curb appeal, and provided services like snow plowing, only account for roughly 16% of a person’s satisfaction with their neighborhood.

“Each study included an ICC, or intraclass correlation coefficient, which indicates how similar satisfaction is among people in the same neighborhood,” Neal comments. “Across these studies, the ICC values were quite low, which means there is a lot of variation in satisfaction even among people in the same neighborhood. That tells us something besides the neighborhood itself is responsible for how much satisfaction each person reports having.”

These findings promise to confound and puzzle city planners, realtors, developers, and local politicians, all of whom go to great lengths to build up neighborhoods and make them appear as attractive and accommodating as possible. Not to mention the enormous budgets devoted to neighborhood maintenance services all over the country. Obviously, it doesn’t make any sense to just abandon these tasks and allow neighborhoods and cul-de-sacs all over to fall into disrepair. Still, in light of this study, one can’t help but wonder if some of those funds would be better spent elsewhere.

As far as what actually influences people’s views on their neighborhood, the study’s authors identified two major factors: personality and perception.

“One possible explanation is that a person’s satisfaction may depend more on the person than on the neighborhood,” Neal expounds. “Agreeable people are likely to be satisfied with their neighborhood, but there will always be others who think that the grass is greener elsewhere.”

Meanwhile, regarding perception, Neal theorizes that “perhaps neighborhood satisfaction, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. We might expect residents to be more satisfied with their neighborhood if its schools are good. But, in practice, they will be more satisfied if they merely think its schools are good, even if the schools aren’t actually that great.”

They say money can’t buy happiness, and this study certainly lends some credence to that notion. A poor family living in a rougher neighborhood may be much happier with their surroundings than a millionaire residing in a mansion. 

The full study can be found here, published in Urban Studies.