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Europe’s other north-south divide: Where city dwellers are happier than rural residents

By Jason Karaian

The hard-working, windswept, Protestant north and the leisure-seeking, sun-dappled, Catholic south. These long-lived stereotypes of the people in northern and southern Europe have been reinforced by the continent’s recent financial crisis: the stronger creditor countries in the north were charged with bailing out their debt-laden counterparts in the south. (There are exceptions, of course, but stay with us here.)

Europe’s diverging economic fortunes are also reflected in how happy its people are. A survey conducted by Eurostat found that, in most cases, residents of northern and central Europe report a higher “overall life satisfaction” than those in the south and east. On a scale of 0 to 10, the likes of Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, and others rate their happiness as an 8, while places like Bulgaria (4.8), Portugal and Greece (both 6.2) are gloomier.

And within countries, there’s another interesting split: urbanites versus country folk. It seems people in the north are generally happier living in rural areas, while those in the south are more content in a city.

Reuters/Luke MacGregor, Regis Duvignau
Where would you rather be?

There are big differences in degree—Bulgarians are happier in the city than the countryside, but are all less happy than the Swiss no matter where they live. (For the record, rural Swiss reported the highest happiness of anyone in the survey, at 8.2 out of 10.)

It could be that in Europe’s poorer regions, the greater economic opportunities that cities offer make people happier—the biggest gaps between urban and rural happiness were measured in Bulgaria, Serbia, and Croatia. In richer central and northern Europe, by contrast, happiness seems to be boosted by escaping the city in favor of fresh air and more space to roam. In the UK, famed for its ”green and pleasant land,” people who lived in thinly-populated areas were happier than city dwellers by the largest margin in the survey sample.

Like religion, weather, and unemployment rates, the love of concrete or countryside is yet another thing that divides Europe roughly in two.