Hey y'all! Index finds happiest U.S. states are in nation's vast heartland

Think you're seeing a lot more glum faces in your neighborhood? That's likely the case if you live in one of four states with high home-foreclosure rates: Florida, Nevada, California and Arizona. Those normally majestic, carefree states ranked as the least happiest, at least when it comes to money matters, a new survey shows.

And where might you find some of the most smiley people? According to Mainstreet.com's Happiness Index, dead in the center of the country, where some of the country's least densely populated states can be found. Nebraska was at the top of heap, followed by Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma and Montana.
Why is that, you ask? Well, to get an understanding of where each state finished and why, it's important to understand the methodology behind the survey's components. The Happiness Index analyzes household income, non-mortgage debt, employment and foreclosures to come up with a Happiness Index Value. A higher value results in the least happy places.

Take, for example, Florida. The Sunshine State ranked 51st in the Happiness Index rankings, which include the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. With the third highest foreclosure rate in the country, 11% unemployment and a high non-mortgage debt rate (37%), it's not surprising that Florida dropped to the bottom of the Happiness Index with a value of 136, Mainstreet.com said.

Penultimate finisher Nevada had a higher unemployment rate (13.3%) and the highest foreclosure rate in the country. One in every 23 households in the state has faced foreclosure. Non-mortgage debt, at 33.4% of total annual income, also means Silver State residents have little income left over to enjoy gambling, which might lift a few spirits and brighten a few smiles. Its Happiness Index value was 135.

California, at third from the bottom, could be described as the Britney Spears of states. Its myriad problems, including budget woes, and high unemployment and foreclosures rates, have played out before a national audience and are fodder for more than a few jokes on late-night TV. California chalked up a Happiness value of 134.

Not to be outdone, finishing at No. 48, Arizona had the highest rate of non-mortgage debt to income of any state in the union -- nearly 40%. That means Grand Canyon State residents spent 40 cents out of every dollar just to pay off such things as credit-card debt and auto loans. The good news is the state is projected to lose fewer jobs next year, though the current rate of employment stands at 9.1%. So at least some Arizonans will be able to continue to pay those debts. The state recorded a Happiness Index value of 129.

On the flip side, Nebraska's 4.9% unemployment rate was nearly half that of Arizona. It also had a low rate of foreclosures and a more manageable 28.6% debt-to-income ratio. Second-place Iowa had a higher unemployment rate -- 6.7% -- but also a relatively low rate of foreclosures and similar levels of indebtedness. All that positive data resulted in Nebraska recording a Happiness Index value of 15, while Iowa's was just two ticks higher at 17.

Rounding out the top five, Kansas, Oklahoma and Montana all had unemployment rates below 7%, low relative debt-to-income ratios and comparatively low foreclosure rates. They had Happiness Index values ranging from 36 to 50.

Whether these latest figures will result in greater numbers of Americans moving to the nation's heartland remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: there's sure plenty of room for them.
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