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The Happiest States

career change mark gleason retirement Dec 18, 2009

by Mark Gleason

photo by Nicola Vetter

Sunshine, open space—and fewer people—appear to make people happier

 In the “maybe this isn’t news” category, new research suggests that sunshine and open space make people happier. The study ranks all 50 states and the District of Columbia on a happiness scale. Louisiana is perhaps a surprise in the No. 1 slot (although the data date back to before Hurricane Katrina), but finding Hawaii, Florida and Arizona in the top five won’t shock anyone. What is most interesting is that places where people are the least happy also turn out to be the places most Americans choose to live. California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Ohio all rank in the bottom 10, with New York in dead last. There’s a lesson about the American dream buried in these rankings, it would seem, although the researchers stop short of hypothesizing on that.

What’s novel about the study is that the researchers behind it didn’t settle for surveying people in different states and comparing their satisfaction rates. Such a methodology would fail to take into account that people in Louisiana may be fundamentally different than people in New York, note Andrew Oswald, a renowned happiness researcher from the University of Warwick, England, and economist Stephen Wu, of Hamilton College, New York. Thus, it wouldn’t enable one to conclude that moving an unhappy New Yorker to Louisiana would improve his sense of satisfaction. To address this shortcoming, the duo compiled statistics on factors known through earlier studies to correlate with individuals’ happiness—such as population density, air quality and the costs of living—and compared them with satisfaction-survey data. In the process, they created profiles of statistically representative Americans and matched them against the objective data to see which states likely would yield better outcomes for them.

For those wondering where to live next, or where to retire, the study offers clues for how to look. As objectively as you can, list the factors about where you live now that contribute to your happiness. Do the same for factors that detract. Try to be totally honest—focus on factors that really make your life more satisfying, not those that you think should for whatever reason. Then comb through the objective factors in Oswald and Wu’s research, or in one of the many “Places to Live” books that are everywhere, to find places that deliver what matters most to you.


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