Oh, no. Here comes another study about happiness. We can't seem to do enough of these paeans to cheerfulness. In the last few months alone, the British Medical Journal suggested that having a happy close friend boosts our own odds of being happy by 25%; the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological
Sciences pointed to evidence that optimism and pessimism are genetically determined; and the website happier.com, which, according to its mission statement, "measures, tracks and improves happiness," launched an iPhone application that allows users to keep a mobile "gratitude journal" (just don't be grateful while driving).
The latest installment comes in the form of the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index, a huge poll (it used a random sample of 355,000 Americans) designed to measure people's daily well-being and describe its correlation to where they live and work. The survey revealed which U.S. states (and, indeed, which congressional districts within those states) were the healthiest and happiest in six categories: life satisfaction, work quality, healthy behavior, physical health, emotional health and basic access to necessities such as food and shelter.
The big winner was Utah, followed by Hawaii, Wyoming, Colorado and Minnesota. The state with the worst sense of well-being was West Virginia. Michigan, Ohio, Mississippi and Kentucky filled out the list of the five worst states.
What are we to conclude from this? Well, let's see: Utah happens to have an unemployment rate of 4.6%, versus the national average of 7.6% (according to January numbers). West Virginia, for its part, has one of the weakest state economies in the country. As for the congressional districts, California's 14th, which includes the lush, plush Silicon Valley cities of Palo Alto and Mountain View, ranked first. The losers: the coal-mining country of Kentucky's 5th District and New York's 16th District, which includes the famously blighted South Bronx.
The study was concerned in large part with quality-of-life issues such as access to outdoor recreation (hence the high marks for Utah and Hawaii) and access to affordable housing and healthcare. But even though spokesmen for the poll may not want to put that fine a point on it -- an Associated Press report said a Gallup researcher was "reluctant to explain regional differences without more study, but suspected that some of the variations are explained by income" -- it appears that Randy Newman may have been right when he sang "it's money that matters." Or, perhaps more accurately, it's that Puff Daddy's lyric, "young, black and famous, with money hangin out the anus," was an encomium to inner peace.
In either case, the current economic calamity has most of us poised for some serious unhappiness. Even if we're lucky enough to have avoided unhappy friends or pessimistic genes (not so for me; when I was small, my father sat me down and told me "happiness is an illusion" -- he then offered me a cherry Life Saver), chances are most of us are suffering some measure of financial anxiety. So does that doom us to West Virginia levels of misery?
Possibly. When I submitted to an assessment on happier.com, which asked questions such as how often I felt proud of myself and what kind of mood I was in most of the time, I scored a rather grim 65 out of a possible 100 (though I guess if I weren't a pessimist, I'd see 65 as a passing grade). It then suggested I do an online exercise on "controlling negative thoughts," in which I was asked to quickly solve a series of anagrams and then record how I felt about myself as I attempted to do so.
As it happened, the test made me feel terrible about myself. Then I learned that all but two of the anagrams were unsolvable and that the exercise was developed to help me "gain more control" of my "thinking styles" and "identify the adversity" I was experiencing."
In other words, I shouldn't have been so hard on myself for erroneously surmising that "godapoo" was almost an anagram for "dog poo." I then went back and retook the happiness test and scored a 70.
Of course, even if I were one of the few people who appear to be thriving in this economy -- like oil company executives and, rather Dickensianly, shoe repairers (people are getting their shoes fixed rather than buying new ones) -- I'd probably still get a middling score on that test. And that's not just because the well-being index ranked my congressional district 416th out of 435 (I attribute that entirely to the overcrowded parking lot at Trader Joe's). It's because ultimately my father was right.
If we believe the results of many of these studies, which suggest that life satisfaction is mostly a matter of perception, then happiness
an illusion. It also happens to be an illusion that can seem a lot more real when paired with cash. Now excuse me while I drop $200 on an iPhone so I can start that mobile gratitude journal.