Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Happiness Maps, Then and Now

I wrote a few years ago about the American states where people reported being happiest, comparing that statistic with crime rates and food stamp usage. Those were self-reports of happiness, and that 2009 study found that the top-10 happiest states were mostly in the South (exceptions: Hawaii, Maine, Arizona, and Montana).

Well, today's happiness map isn't based on self-report. It's a combination of factors devised by Gallup that analyzes things like "emotional health, work environment, physical health, life evaluation, healthy behaviors, and access to basic resources." Perhaps better labeled as a map of well-being than happiness. And there's nary a southern state in the top ten. In fact, many of the happiest of all states in 2009 are among the least happy now:

Louisiana went from #1 for happiness to being one of the bottom 15; other former top-10 states that are now in the bottom 15 are Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Tennessee. Montana and Hawaii, in contrast, are the only two states to made it into the top 10 on both maps.

States like New York, which was at the very bottom of the 2009 happiness list, are in the midrange in 2011. Massachusetts went from the bottom 10 to the top 15.

So what does this mean? I assume the objective reality in these states may have changed a bit, since it's two years or so later. But there's more to it than that.

One possibility is that ignorance is bliss; some folks aren't aware that their lives suck, objectively. They're in the poor-but-happy group. The flip side of that is the idea that some people don't know how good they've got it, maybe because they've got a case of unfulfilled rising expectations. (If you live in New York and see the 1% driving past in a limo every day, you might be more resentful of your circumstances than a person who is objectively less well off than you but who's surrounded by people who are similarly hard up.)

Or maybe people in the usually blue states are more likely to feel free to complain about their troubles to a pollster, while those in the normally red states (or at least southern states) put up a brave front to the outsiders on the phone.

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