The Happiest State in America? Sadly, Surveys Don't Agree

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Americans have long been engaged in the pursuit of happiness. It's in the Declaration of Independence after all. So when studies suggest some states are happier than others, tempers flare, even during the holidays. The latest study ranking states from happiest to gloomiest actually placed some of the states with the wealthiest populations (New York, Connecticut, New Jersey) near the bottom and some of the poorer ones (Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi) near the top, suggesting once more that money cannot buy happiness.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%%Economics professor Andrew J. Oswald of Britain's University of Warwick and Stephen Wu of Hamilton College in New York examined a random sample of 1.3 million U.S. citizens that measured their level of satisfaction in life. The professors then compared that data to a 2003 study by Stuart Gabriel and his colleagues from University of California at Los Angeles, which considered objective indicators such as temperature, sunshine, national parks, commuting time, crime, air quality, taxes, cost of living, education and so on.

The researchers found that the results of the 2003 study correlated closely with their own, thereby validating the self-reported levels of happiness they received from survey participants.

One of the biggest surprises among the findings: California and New York fared poorly in the happiness rankings. "Many people think these states would be marvelous places to live in," said Professor Oswald in the release. "The problem is that if too many individuals think that way, they move into those states, and the resulting congestion and house prices make it a non-fulfilling prophecy."

Digging Deeper into Degrees of "Happiness"

If only things were as simple as Oswald explains them. A deeper dive into the numbers makes clear that the statistical differences between the happiest and gloomiest states are marginal, which somewhat diminishes the importance of the findings. Then, there's the question of methodology and the way in which the researchers controlled the results for "demographic differences."

"What we do in our study is to control for differences in income, education, age, marital and employment status and race," says Wu, who notes that all of these factors are known to be correlated with higher levels of happiness. As he explained it an email, they are essentially comparing the "life satisfaction of a representative individual" in each state.

It certainly appears that income was controlled when comparing the findings to median income households in 2008 as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau. Of the top-five happiest states in the study, only Hawaii ranked above the median U.S. household income. Conversely, of the bottom five, only Indiana and Michigan ranked below the U.S. median. The richest state, Maryland, ranked 40th in the happiness survey, while the poorest, Mississippi, ranked 6th.

Lots of Room for Interpretation

Yet, one look at a Gallup-Healthways Well Being Index, another recent survey measuring happiness in individual states that had dramatically different findings, makes it clear how much room for interpretation such studies leave. Gallup's survey of 355,000 Americans didn't control for the income differences. That survey ranked Utah, Hawaii, Wyoming, Colorado and Minnesota as the top five best states to live in. Arkansas, Ohio, Mississippi, Kentucky and West Virginia rounded out the bottom five. View the full list here.

While the Oswald/Wu study suggests that Southern sunshine states are the happiest, the Gallup study finds that states with wealthier, better educated and more tolerant residents are happiest. Again, though, the differences between happiest and gloomiest are small. Of course, the happiest states couldn't help but flaunt the results at mighty New York and California, which in turn were only too happy to snark back.

But, really, it's important to remember that overall, Americans in general are quite happy as measured by different international rankings. While the U.S. didn't make it to the top 10 in the recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, it was ranked ninth in the Legatum Prosperity Index.

Certainly, money isn't a key to happiness, as so many studies have found (although it sure can make life easier). The real secrets to happiness are the people who surround us -- friends, family, co-workers -- our hobbies, attitude and not the least, giving. If that doesn't sound like the essence of the holiday spirit -- what is?

1 Louisiana
2 Hawaii
3 Florida
4 Tennessee
5 Arizona
6 Mississippi
7 Montana
8 South Carolina
9 Alabama
10 Maine
11 Alaska
12 North Carolina
13 Wyoming
14 Idaho
15 South Dakota
16 Texas
17 Arkansas
18 Vermont
19 Georgia
20 Oklahoma
21 Colorado
22 Delaware
23 Utah
24 New Mexico
25 North Dakota
26 Minnesota
27 New Hampshire
28 Virginia
29 Wisconsin
30 Oregon
31 Iowa
32 Kansas
33 Nebraska
34 West Virginia
35 Kentucky
36 Washington
37 District of Columbia
38 Missouri
39 Nevada
40 Maryland
41 Pennsylvania
42 Rhode Island
43 Massachusetts
44 Ohio
45 Illinois
46 California
47 Indiana
48 Michigan
49 New Jersey
50 Connecticut
51 New York
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