Happiest Places on Earth
The Backstreet Boys sing that they'd "go anywhere for you," but it turns out, they might be happier if they went to Honolulu for you rather than, say, West Virginia. Every year, the Gallup pollsters survey people throughout the US to find out the happiest place to live. The most recent results are hot off the presses, and it turns out that for the fourth year running, the residents of Hawaii outrank people living everywhere else in terms of life satisfaction.1 Plus, Hawaiian residents seem to get happier each year. Next in happiness are citizens of Colorado, followed by Minnesota, Utah, and Vermont. The least happy state is West Virginia, for the fourth consecutive year, followed by Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas.
The pollsters contacted 1000 people every day of the year, throughout all 50 states, ending up with results from 353,564 Americans. Participants were asked to rank their satisfaction in six different life areas on a scale of one to 100. The parameters were overall life satisfaction, healthy behaviors engaged in, emotional health, physical health, work environment, and basic access to necessities and services. Hawaii residents were the most likely to say they were thriving and that they had laughed a lot the day before the interview.
Interestingly, these results were at least in part duplicated in a much larger study of Twitter messages conducted in 2011 at the University of Vermont2. The researchers evaluated over 10 million geo-tagged tweets looking for words that indicated happiness or depression. Utah and Vermont reappeared among the top five happiest states in the Twitter study, joined this time by Maine and Nevada. The least happiest place to live according to Twitter was Louisiana--which the researchers attribute at least in part to the predominance of curse words coming from that state-- followed by Mississippi, Maryland, Michigan, and Delaware. Napa, California took the prize for the happiest "city" in the survey; Beaumont, Texas, scored the lowest. And places generating the most tweets were the most miserable, indicating that technology does not happiness make.
How much difference does it actually make to live in one of the supposedly happy places? There's certainly some correlation to health. Vermont ranks first in health in the nation, and Hawaii second, according to America's Health Rankings--2012 Edition.3Mississippi and Louisiana tie for the least healthy states, followed by Arkansas, West Virginia, and South Carolina. So location reflects the fact that physical health often follows mental health, and happy places breed both things…or vice versa. Perhaps it's the fact that people are physically and mentally optimized that helps make them happy.
So what do the experts say as to why some places are considerably happier than others? Is it something in (or not in) the air or the water? Some of the analysts say that it's obvious people would be happier in Hawaii given the great weather and beaches, but if weather and beaches alone made people happy, Florida should be at the top, too, instead of in 34th place (42nd place last year). Others say the top-ranked places have higher standards of living and more residents with higher education. But according to Money Magazine, Hawaii actually is the worst state in the nation in which to make a living, with few jobs and low salaries, plus astronomical costs for housing and food.4 As for higher education, Hawaii does not make it into the top 10, although West Virginia is indeed the state with the fewest college graduates.
Perhaps some other factor is at work. Hawaii has a unique culture, not replicated in any other state. The "aloha spirit" is promoted statewide as a value all citizens should cultivate--reaching out to others, valuing community, welcoming strangers, nurturing the environment, embracing family even when it's not your own. There's even a well-used Hawaiian word for unofficially adopting kids who aren't related by blood--and taking on "hanai" children is a fairly common phenomenon. Another difference is that people are encouraged to take the time to "talk story," even when under extreme pressure, and even in work environments. Then again, the other states in the top five have no such "aloha spirit."
It's interesting to look at worldwide surveys of the happy spots, keeping these things in mind. In the most recent survey conducted by Gallup, eight of the ten top happiest places across the globe were developing nations in South America, with Panama in the number one spot.5 The pollsters interviewed 1000 people in each of 148 nations, asking them the five questions similar to those in the domestic survey: "Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday? Did you learn something interesting? Did you feel enjoyment?" Then again, can we really believe that El Salvador, Venezuela, and Guatemala, which make the top ten for murder rates,6 also rank in the top 10 for happiness too? Maybe acting out emotions instead of suppressing them removes depression, even when that acting out is violent, which makes happiness a bit less of an elevated goal.
The least happy nation in the survey, by the way, was Singapore. Only 46 percent of the respondents in Singapore answered "yes" to the five questions, compared to 55 percent in Afghanistan, of all places. So much for the "money-makes-people-happy" theory. Singapore is the world's fifth richest nation in terms of per capita wealth; Panama ranks number 90. Other countries in the top 10 happy places were Paraguay and El Salvador in the second and third spots, Trinidad and Tobago in the fourth, and Thailand in the fifth. Nations scoring lowest on the happy scale were Armenia, Iraq, Serbia, and Yemen. The US was in 35th place, tied with Sweden, Swaziland, Chile, and China.
Most likely moving to a happy place won't transform you into a blissful specimen if you're burdened with depression, but it might lift some of your sadness to be part of a community where you're surrounded by others who appreciate their lives, appreciate their neighbors, and take the time to just "hang out." On the other hand, according to the New York Times, the world's happiest people are tall, male, Asian, religious Jews who are over the age of 65, self-employed, married with kids and making more than $120,000 a year.7 Such people might even thrive in Singapore, or West Virginia. So much for the stereotype of Jewish guilt!
Interestingly, the survey does not include Bhutan--the only country in the world that measures prosperity by gauging its citizens' happiness levels, not its GDP.8 Apparently, contacting citizens of Bhutan by telephone isn’t that easy, particularly in rural areas.9 Maybe being out-of-range actually is a help in happiness cultivation. Anyway, that’s happiness the world could really use these days.
- 1. Li, Shan. "Hawaii once again happiest state, West Virginia at bottom, poll says."28 February 2013. Los Angeles Times. 28 February 2013. http://www.latimes.com/business/money/la-fi-gallup-happiest-states-hawaii-20130228,0,435784.story
- 2. Kelley, Heather. "The happiest and saddest states according to Twitter." 20 February 2013. CNN Tech. 28 February 2013. http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/19/tech/social-media/twitter-happiness
- 3. "America's Health Rankings." United Health. 28 February 2013. http://www.americashealthrankings.org/rankings
- 4. Kristof, Kathy. "10 Best and Worst Places to Make a Living." 6 April 2011. Money Watch. 1 March 2013. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505144_162-36944374/10-best--worst-states-to-make-a-living
- 5. Clifton, John. "Latin Americans the Most Positive in the World." 19 December 2012. Gallup World. 1 March 2013. http://www.gallup.com/poll/159254/latin-americans-positive-world.aspx#2
- 6. "Global Study on Homicide." UNODC 2011. (Accessed 2 Mar 2013.) http://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/statistics/Homicide/Globa_study_on_homicide_2011_web.pdf
- 7. Rampell, Catherine. "Discovered: The Happiest Man in America." The New York Times. 1 March 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/weekinreview/06happy.html
- 8. Annie Kelly. "Gross national happiness in Bhutan: the big idea from a tiny state that could change the world" The Observer 1 Dec 2012. (Accessed 2 Mar 2013.) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/01/bhutan-wealth-happiness-counts
- 9. “Telecommunications in Bhutan.” Wikipedia. 3 March 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telecommunications_in_Bhutan