Happy To Be Here

Editorial Notebook

November 14, 2009|By Andrew A. Green

Here's some happy news: You're already happy.

At least compared to people in other states. In a study being published in the December issue of the Journal of Research in Personality, Maryland comes out as the sixth-happiest state in the nation, and the happiest one on the East Coast. We beat out all our neighbors by fairly wide margins: Virginia comes closest at 15th, but Pennsylvania is 32nd, Delaware is 36th and West Virginia is a positively melancholy 50th.

The researchers, Peter J. Rentfrow of the University of Cambridge in England, Charlotta Mellander of the Jonkkoping International Business School in Sweden and Richard Florida (of "The Creative Class" fame) of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, used data from Gallup's well-being index to figure out which states are happier than others. The survey measures physical and emotional health, respondents' feelings about their jobs, their overall satisfaction with their lives and their expectations for the future. What they found was a high level of correlation between scores on that index and measures of educational attainment, wealth, diversity and the percentage of people in highly creative occupations, such as artists, architects, engineers, scientists, teachers and writers.

They also found a strongly negative correlation with what personality researchers call "neuroticism," the tendency to experience emotions like anger or depression.

Maryland comes out well on nearly all counts. We are, by some measures, the wealthiest state. Our "human capital" score - a measurement of education - is in the top 10, and we're No. 3 when it comes to the most creative occupations. We have a small share of people in working-class occupations (construction, maintenance, factory work, etc.), which tends to correlate negatively with happiness, and we're fairly diverse.

More perplexing is Utah, which easily beat out Hawaii (go figure) for the spot as the happiest state. Utah is far happier than its scores for economy and diversity would suggest. (The population is fairly well educated, though.) The secret of Utah's success appears to be an extremely low incidence of neuroticism, a category on which it does much better than any other state.

One striking thing about the researchers' findings is that there seems to be very little correlation between happiness and the things we spend all of our time arguing about. There are red states in the top 10 (Utah, Wyoming, Arizona) and blue ones (Maryland, California, Massachusetts). There are states with high taxes and states with low taxes. (Apparently anyone who fled Maryland to Delaware over the sales tax increase here might live to regret it.) There are states that are socially conservative and states that are liberal.

This puts an empirical stamp on what should be intuitively obvious: There's more than one way to be happy. The authors of this study note that other research on differences in happiness between countries has found that "in nations where basic needs are taken care of, where people have the freedom to be themselves, and where differences are tolerated, people appear to be generally happy." The United States perennially scores near the top among nations in terms of happiness. The Declaration of Independence proclaims our right to the pursuit of happiness, but the key, perhaps, is that we each have the freedom to pursue it however and wherever we choose, whether that's Utah or Hawaii - or Maryland.

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