Happiest states in America, Texas in top half

POSTED: Friday, December 18, 2009 - 10:37am
UPDATED: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 8:53am

UNDATED - Ever wondered if you'd be happier in sunny Florida or snow-covered Minnesota? New research on state-level happiness could answer that question.

Florida and two other sunshine states made it to the Top 5, while Minnesota doesn't show up until number 26 on the list of happiest states. In addition to rating the smile factor of U.S. states, the research also proved for the first time that a person's self-reported happiness matches up with objective measures of well-being.

Essentially, if an individual says they're happy, they are.

"When human beings give you an answer on a numerical scale about how satisfied they are with their lives, it is best to pay attention. Their answers are reliable," said Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick in England. "This suggests that life-satisfaction survey data might be very useful for governments to use in the design of economic and social policies," Oswald said.

The happy-states list, however, doesn't match up with a similar ranking reported last month, which found that the most tolerant and wealthiest states were, on average, the happiest. Oswald says this past is based on raw averages of people's happiness in a state, and so doesn't provide meaningful results.

"That study cannot control for individual characteristics," Oswald told LiveScience. "In other words, all anyone has been able to do is to report the averages state-by-state, and the problem with doing that is you're not comparing apples with apples because the people who live in New York City are nothing like the individuals living in Montana."

Rather, Oswald and Stephen Wu, an economist at Hamilton College in New York, statistically created a representative American. That way they could take, for example, a 38-year-old woman with a high-school diploma and making medium-wage who is living anywhere and transplant her to another state and get a rough estimate of her happiness level.

"Not much point in looking at the happiness of a Texas rancher compared to a nurse in Ohio," Oswald said.

The happiest states:

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

The scientists caution, however, that the top spot, Louisiana, might not reflect current levels of well-being since the data were collected before the disruption caused by Hurricane Katrina. They are confident that data for the other states does accurately reflect happiness levels.

Happiness measures

Their results come from a comparison of two data sets of happiness levels in each state, one that relied on participants' self-reported well-being and the other an objective measure that took into account a state's weather, home prices and other factors that are known reasons to frown (or smile).

The self-reported information came from 1.3 million U.S. citizens who took part in a survey between 2005 and 2008.

"We wanted to study whether people's feelings of satisfaction with their own lives are reliable, that is, whether they match up to reality - of sunshine hours, congestion, air quality, etc - in their own state," Oswald said.

The results showed the two measures matched up. "We were stunned when it first came up on our screens, because no one has ever managed to produce a clear validation before of subjective well-being, or happiness, data," Oswald said.

They were also surprised at the least happy states, such as New York and Connecticut, which landed at the bottom two spots on the list.

"We were struck by the states that come at the bottom, because a lot of them are on the East Coast, highly prosperous and industrialized," Oswald said. "That's another way of saying they have a lot of congestion, high house prices, bad air quality."

He added, "Many people think these states would be marvelous places to live in. 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."

Would you be happier in another state?

Using both the subjective well-being results, which included individual characteristics like demographics and income, and the objective findings, the team could figure out how an individual would fare in a particular state.

"We can create a like-to-like comparison, because we know the characteristics of people in every state," Oswald said. "So we can adjust statistically to compare a representative person hypothetically put down in any state."