Congratulations, San Francisco -- Tens of Thousands of Out of Towners Feel We're 'Happy'

Categories: Media

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Can you see the happiness?

If ever there were an inane list of cities that place well in inane lists -- San Francisco would, inanely, make a hell of a showing.

And there's something seemingly even more inane than normal about the latest elite list the city has found itself on -- apparently, Disneyland be damned, we're the happiest place on earth. Or among the happiest, at least.

Since this was a list complied for Forbes magazine, however, it's always worth a look. That's because the researcher who compiled this data -- via 10,000 online interviews of people hailing from 20 countries -- is well aware of how ephemeral his findings are. The term "happiness" is not something that can be easily broken down into technical terms, and it's a good bet that most of the international interviewees are blithely unaware that Karl Malden and Michael Douglas no longer jump large American cars off the city's hills. But when queried about what they perceive as "fun" or "happy," people worldwide think of San Francisco.

This is useful. This is good to know. The old saying goes, "What good is money? It can't buy you happiness?" -- but, on the other hand, happiness can get you money. These findings indicate that, while tourism dollars will be ever harder to come by as the economy continues to swirl around the bowl, the leagues of folks clutching maps and going the wrong way on the F-Line aren't going away just yet. We are still an alluring place, it seems.

"This is a survey of perception, not a survey of reality," says policy adviser Simon Anholt, who compiled this data along with market researcher GfK Custom Research North America. "People write me all the time and say 'that's not true.' It probably isn't true, but it's what people think." When explaining how Sydney placed so well on his list, Anholt puts it thusly: "Everybody thinks they know Australia because they've seen Crocodile Dundee. There's this image of this nation of people who basically sit around having barbecues."

By the way, here's that list:

1. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 2. Sydney, Australia 3. Barcelona, Spain 4. Amsterdam, Netherlands 5. Melbourne, Australia 6. Madrid, Spain 7. San Francisco, U.S. 8. Rome, Italy 9. Paris, France 10. Buenos Aires, Argentina

While the idea of asking out-of-towners to rate the "happiness" of cities like San Francisco is the epitome of silliness, the real value of this survey is more about seeing how people think rather than what they think.

Locals may have to hopscotch over human effluvia on a daily basis, grumble about a dysfunctional city government, and know that the only way they can afford land here is if they buy it in small enough parcels to keep in their pockets. But internationals see -- happiness.

It's all a matter of how closely you look, it would seem. Visitors to the city that topped this survey, Rio de Janeiro, are often bowled over by the spectacular view from the many verdant hills throughout the area. From a distance, Rio's favelas look like magical, medieval remnants of another realm. Their makeshift metal roofs shine like the Tin Man of Oz and the buildings meander halfway up the mountainsides. Yet when you approach the fetid slums on foot they are not romantic -- or happy -- places.

Perhaps that says everything about this Forbes study right there.


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