What is happiness? Can it be learned? Could it be measured?
Did you know that happiness – those warm feelings of contentment, pride, joy, and gratitude we all feel from time to time – is one of today’s hot topics for scientific study?
Even more, it can be measured and quantified, too.
When SpringBoard Recovery opened the center’s doors for the first time, the mission was simple:
To help people transform their lives while recovering from addiction and underlying mental health conditions.
It remains exactly the same to this very day.
One of the many benefits of working within professional substance addiction treatment is seeing how much happier clients become once they have begun their journey to recovery. We know that recovering addicts who have become happy and content with their new, substance-free lives are far less likely to experience a relapse nor return to addiction.
As part of the SpringBoard Recovery Editorial Team’s commitment to providing you with professional, engaging content that continuously strives to inform and educate, we took on the challenge of answering the question in our title: “Who Lives in the Happiest State in the U.S.?”
This is what we found:
Who Lives in the Happiest State in the U.S.?: Special Report 2022
Table of Contents:
According to the well-being experts at The Greater Good Science Center, part of the University of California in Berkeley, not many of us actually care what the definition of happiness is – we know it when we feel it, and we’d all like more,too.
Look in a standard dictionary, and “happiness” is more often than not defined as “the state of being happy.” Look up the definition of “happy” and you’ll find something like “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.”
So, not much help there, either.
The creator of Snoopy and Charlie Brown – Charles M. Schulz – once described happiness as “a warm puppy.”
Now we’re getting closer…
One of the best definitions of happiness comes from positive psychology researcher and author Sonja Lyubomirsky, who defined happiness in her 2007 book “The How of Happiness” as: “The experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
One lengthy Harvard study (it ran for 72 years…) into the secret of happiness, known as the “Grant Study,” was conducted for the most part by psychologist George Valliant, who summarized its findings as simply: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
Or to put it another way, people who have loving relationships with family and friends thrive; those who don’t… don’t.
In fact, many wise and great minds have defined “happiness” in their own unique way over the centuries. One of the most insightful of these comes from the Dalai Lama in his book “The Art of Happiness,” in which he states, “We need to learn how to want what we have, not to have what we want, in order to get steady and stable happiness.”
Happiness, Positive Psychology & Subjective Well-Being
On the surface, happiness is a feeling, a human emotion. However, in today’s data-driven world, it is so much more. In the last 30 years, the research and study of happiness has become a whole diverse subject in itself, and the latest findings are often used as the basis for decisions made in government policy, big business, the media, and social reform.
In fact, at the University of Pennsylvania, students can study an entire graduate-degree program in happiness (with the fancier title of Applied Positive Psychology), led by Martin Seligman, one of the most distinguished social psychologists in the world, and a former president of the American Psychological Association.
What is Positive Psychology?
Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.
“Happy people remember more good events than actually happened, and they forget more of the bad events. Depressed people, in contrast, are accurate about both.”
– Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD: “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment”
The word “happiness” is often used along with the term “subjective well-being,” which, according to the social and psychology experts, can certainly be measured.
Involving surveys and using interviews or questionnaires, this is predominantly achieved by asking people to report how satisfied and content they feel with their own lives, and how much positive and negative emotion they’re experiencing.
What is Subjective Well-Being?
Subjective well-being (SWB), also known as self-reported well-being, refers to how people experience and evaluate the different aspects of their lives. It is often used to measure a person’s mental health and level of happiness, and it can be an important predictor of individual health, wellness, and longevity.
As large entities like major U.S. corporations, politicians, and the media all strive to become more data-driven, SWB has become a useful measure of societal health, and a primary source of information for policymakers in business and politics to base decisions upon.
Subjective well-being can be influenced by a number of different factors, and these influences include those that are internal, such as your personality, or external, such as the kind of environment or society you live in.
To this end, researchers of subjective well-being have identified a number of specific internal and external areas in life that are critical to your overall well-being and your level of happiness. These are:
- Basic Resources: Having what you need in life, eg. money, housing, healthcare, and longevity, ie. your life expectancy at birth
- Genetics: Your personality type and your inborn temperament
- Mindset & Resilience: Having a positive, strong mindset and a strong sense of resilience makes you more likely to be happier, even when facing difficult life events
- Social Support: Having a network of family and friends that you can turn to in times of need
- Environment & Society: The characteristics of the environment and society where you live, particularly if it is affected by poverty and crime, will heavily influence how you feel about your life.
The Benefits of Being Happy
As you would imagine, being happy and having a smile on your face is a really good thing for us. Being happy and content with your life has real, tangible benefits, too. Here are the most common benefits that happiness brings, according to health and social experts:
Other Personal / Social Benefits
|If you are happy and enjoy a high level of subjective well-being, you will…|
The Dark Side of Happiness
A side of happiness that is not often explored in the media is its “dark side.” Yes, there is a dark, hurtful and harmful side to happiness that many people are simply unaware even exists. But it’s there nonetheless, and people who wish to be truly happy and content in their lives need to know what that other side of happiness means for them.
Our Greater Good scientific friends at Berkley explain exactly how happiness can be damaging. They report that intensive “happiness” studies run by June Gruber, PhD., from the University of Colorado (Boulder) and Maya Tamir, PhD., from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, revealed 4 distinct ways when happiness is not good for you.
- Too much happiness can make you less creative – and less safe: When happiness is experienced too intensely, people lose their sense of creativity and become inflexible, compared to their usual behavior. Like everything in life, moderation is best.
- Happiness is not suited to every situation: In specific studies, people in a happy mood performed worse than people in an angry mood when being competitive.
- Not all types of happiness are good for you: “Happiness” is a single term, but it refers to a spectrum of emotion, eg. making us more energetic, more relaxed, more proud, or more generous. “Pride” can lead to negative social outcomes, such as aggressiveness towards others, antisocial behavior, and even an increased risk of mood disorders such as mania.
- Pursuing happiness may actually make you unhappy: Most people want to be happy, but is actively pursuing happiness healthy? The truth appears to be this: at times, the more people pursue happiness, the less they seem able to obtain it.
The Dark Side of Happiness: June Gruber at TEDxCambridge 2011
Yale psychologist June Gruber asks whether, in a culture obsessed with pursuing happiness, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
So exactly do you put a number – assign an actual accurate measure of quantity – to each level of happiness in each state in the U.S.?
In order to achieve this, SpringBoard Recovery has chosen to closely follow the model provided by the subjective well-being researchers themselves. Therefore, just like the researchers, we decided to look at the internal and external areas critical to personal overall well-being and level of happiness (as described above).
Our 12 Measurable Happiness Criteria
Accordingly, these are the 12 specific elements or “measurable happinessLife Expectancy criteria”; these will result in a number or percentage for each state, comparable to others, and so can then be ranked accordingly.
Several of these criteria have been deemed to be more significant than others; for example, “well-being” and “mental health” can rightly be considered to be more important than “pet ownership” or “crime.”
Therefore, we will term these as “primary criteria” – this means the other criteria will carry less weight in our final calculations (we will explain this in full below).
Just like subjective well-being researchers, it is from these rankings we will be able to determine our answer: The Happiest State in the U.S.
Happiest U.S. State: Our 12 Measurable Criteria
|1||Average Household Income||7||Drug & Alcohol Use|
|3||Health Care||9||Pet Ownership|
|4||Life Expectancy at Birth||10||Poverty|
|6||Mental Health||12||Violent Crime|
1. Average Household Income
UNSURPRISINGLY, money is considered a “basic resource” by subjective well-being researchers, and this it’s often measured by using the median (average) household incomes for each U.S. state.
As the majority of household income is derived from employment, it also provides a strong indication of “purpose” – a criteria used extensively when determining a person’s well-being.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest employment data, there are around 157 million Americans in the nation’s labor force, and around 107.8 million are employed in the service sector (around 71%).
The largest divisions among the services sector are trade, transportation, utilities, education, health, business services, and leisure and hospitality.
In addition to this:
- 22.5 million Americans work in government
- 12.9 million work in manufacturing, and
- 16 million people are self-employed
To determine the median household income for each U.S. state, we have used official government data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
U.S. States: Average Household Income
#11 – #50
|11||New Jersey||21||Pennsylvania||31||Rhode Island||41||New Mexico|
|19||Hawaii||29||North Carolina||39||Floria||49||West Virginia|
Basic shelter – having a roof over your head – is seen as a basic need of life. The simple idea that there is always a place for you to go – the family home – is often a surprising, yet real comfort in troubled times, such as divorce or illness.
In the vast majority of U.S. states, however, homeownership has actually declined between 2005 and 2020. As you can see from our table below, West Virginia has the highest rate of homeownership nationwide (at 77.8%), and New York has the lowest rate (at 53.6%).
U.S. States: Homeownership
#11 – #50
|14||Indiana||24||South Dakota||34||Ohio||44||New Jersey|
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
3. Health Care
The well-being and potential for happiness of every single American is heavily dependent upon the quality of health care they have access to and receive.
This is highly significant simply because no-one with a debilitating medical condition, in constant chronic pain, or in need of important surgery has a realistic chance of finding true happiness without the treatment they need.
In the U.S., one of the most respected sources of national surveys is the U.S. News & World Report, a multifaceted digital media company which assists Americans – including policymakers – with important life decisions.
In order to rank U.S. states for healthcare in the U.S., we looked at the official Health Care Rankings for all states provided by U.S. News & World Report. In determining their rankings, U.S. News analyses data for specific criteria, ie. health care access, health care quality, and the state of public health.
Here’s what they found:
U.S. States: Health Care
|4||New Jersey||9||Rhode Island|
#11 – #50
|13||New Hampshire||23||Illinois||33||New Mexico||43||Georgia|
|17||Oregon||27||North Dakota||37||Ohio||47||West Virginia|
4. Life Expectancy
Life expectancy at birth is defined as how long, on average, a newborn can expect to live, if current death rates do not change. In the U.S., life expectancy has dropped significantly in recent years since the emergence of the coronavirus, as it has resulted in an ever-increasing death toll across the nation.
Significant factors in the length of life expectancy include gender, genetics, hygiene, diet and exercise, access to quality healthcare, lifestyle and culture, and crime rates. However, studies indicate that your longevity is predominantly based on two major factors: genetics and lifestyle choices.
Even though the U.S. is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, life expectancy here is substantially lower than in other developed countries. Currently, virtually all of Europe, China, other developed Asian countries like Japan, Singapore and South Korea, Canada and Australia have significantly longer life expectancy than here in the U.S.
U.S. States: Life Expectancy
#11 – #50
As we discussed earlier, “subjective well-being” is a quality that can be measured, and then indexed accordingly. One of the most respected and established indices in widespread use today – the “Sharecare Community Well-Being Index” – is the analysis of a large-scale national survey carried out by Sharecare, a leading U.S. digital health company, in partnership with Boston University’s School of Public Health.
In 2021, nearly 500,000 U.S. residents were asked questions based on the Sharecare’s criteria, and the Well-Being Index’s results are a mirror of those residents’ responses. Their criteria includes economic security, food access, purpose, healthcare, and household finance.
The latest version of the index – the Sharecare Community Well-Being Index, released only last month (July, 2022) – reveals the following results:
U.S. States: Well-Being
#11 – #50
|11||Rhode Island||21||New Hampshire||31||Montana||41||Indiana|
|18||Pennsylvania||28||Alaska||38||North Carolina||48||West Virginia|
6. Mental Health
An exceptionally important element of determining your level of happiness is your mental health. One of the most respected surveys of the nation’s mental health is undertaken by Mental Health America (MHA), one of the U.S.’s leading community-based nonprofits dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness.
Using a range of specific criteria, including the prevalence of mental illness, the number of people with healthcare insurance, and available treatment, including access and quality, the report provides a relatively accurate picture of adult and youth mental health in the U.S. now.
U.S. States: Mental Health
#11 – #50
7. Drug & Alcohol Use
As we have seen so far, the circumstances of where and how you live has a critical impact on your ability to live happily. A sure sign of unhappiness is often the heavy and excessive use and abuse of mind-altering, addictive substances, such as:
“Self-medication” is the common term used to describe someone who engages in the use of these substances to simply make themselves better than how they usually feel. Obviously, regularly abusing addictive substances like these will only end one way: addiction.
Unsurprisingly, around half of those with a substance use disorder (SUD) have a concurrent mental health disorder, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); this is medically termed as co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis.
If you’re concerned about your level of alcohol consumption, why not complete our quick self-assessment?
U.S. States: Drug & Alcohol Use
#11 – #50
|11||Pennsylvania||21||New Jersey||31||California||41||Rhode Island|
|12||Virginia||22||North Dakota||32||Arizona||42||New Mexico|
|16||South Dakota||26||West Virginia||36||South Dakota||46||Washington|
Source: KFF: U.S. Drug & Alcohol Dependence & Abuse Note: Although some states have legalized marijuana, at federal level, it is still regarded as an illicit drug.
Family is a cornerstone of life, having the most important effect and influence on our lives – from the earliest years of our childhood, through our teenage years, and on into our adulthood.
From birth, family is the strongest influence on how we view the world around us. Families that function normally provide a safe, stable, and loving environment which enables each family member, especially children, to develop without limitations and to reach their full potential.
Scientific studies report that family normally also provides financial stability in our early years, meeting all of our basic needs, and allowing us to grow – physically, mentally and emotionally. Without question, one of the primary reasons why family is so important is its level of support.
For our calculations into the happiest state in the U.S., we looked at the states considered to be the best places in the U.S. to raise a family.
U.S. States: Family
#11 – #50
|13||South Dakota||23||Pennsylvania||33||Michigan||43||South Carolina|
9. Pet Ownership
It doesn’t matter whether you are a “dog person,” a “cat person” or a “bearded dragon person,” owning a pet has been proven extensively to be healthy for you – reducing your stress, increasing your fitness, and bringing happiness to you and your family.
[Editor’s Note: If you’re looking for a pet to get fit and healthy, however, you’ll probably want to give the cat-thing a miss. Instead, a far better choice would be a companionable and intelligent canine “best friend,” and as an added bonus, your fitness will improve in no time… Just saying.]
Proven health benefits of owning a pet include increasing your opportunities to exercise, to get outside and into nature, and to socialize and make new friends. Regular walking or playing with pets will decrease your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels.
Pets can help to manage and alleviate loneliness, depression, anxiety, and even PTSD by providing companionship. Additionally, when done so correctly with supervision, pets can teach children compassion and responsibility.
Our Pet Ownership state rankings shown below are provided by The American Veterinary Medical Association (AMVA), who regularly conduct nationwide surveys of pet-owning households in the U.S.
U.S. States: Pet Ownership
#11 – #50
|16||Michigan||26||Iowa||36||New Hampshire||46||South Dakota|
|17||South Carolina||27||Utah||37||Nebraska||47||Rhode Island|
Source: American Veterinary Medical Association (AMVA)
In today’s consumer-driven world, the polar opposite of financial security is poverty. If you were to ask someone “What does poverty mean?” you’d probably hear either “having no money” or “unable to pay for essentials, like shelter or food.”
They wouldn’t be wrong, but it is certainly a long way from a complete answer. Poverty is much, much more than simply having very little money. Believe it or not, poverty costs, just not in a way you’d expect.
The World Bank Organization describes poverty like this: “Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick, and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school, and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, [and it] is fear for the future, living one day at a time.”
Furthermore, poverty also means:
- Not being able to participate in recreational activities
- Not being able to send children on a day trip with their schoolmates or to a birthday party
- Not being able to pay for over-the-counter medications for an illness
U.S. States: Poverty
#11 – #50
|11||Delaware||21||North Dakota||31||Indiana||41||North Carolina|
|15||Oregon||25||Connecticut||35||New York||45||West Virginia|
Source: U.S. Census Bureau: Poverty Rate
11. Firearm Mortality
Gun culture – “the right to bear arms” – is a fixture of modern American life, just as the numerous deaths are resulting from gun ownership. Firearm mortality totaled 1.5 million deaths between 1968 and 2017 – a total higher than the number of soldiers killed in every US conflict since the American War for Independence way back in 1775.
In 2020, more than 45,000 Americans lost their lives, whether by gun-related homicide or suicide. That’s more than any other year on record. The increase in gun deaths represents a 25% increase from 5 years before, and a 43% increase from 2010.
U.S. gun ownership is easily the highest in the world, with around 120.5 firearms per 100 residents – more than one gun for every person.
U.S. States: Firearm Mortality
|4||Rhode Island||9||New Hampshire|
#11 – #50
|20||South Dakota||30||North Carolina||40||Montana||50||Mississippi|
Source: Firearm Mortality by State
12. Property & Violent Crime Rates
In the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) provides crime statistics through its Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program. The collected data is categorized using the “Hierarchy Rule,” which requires that only the most serious offense in a multiple-offense criminal incident be counted.
Under this Rule, crimes in the U.S. are classified by severity. As such, “violent crimes” – murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault – are deemed to be the worst type of offenses, in that order of severity.
Lesser offenses – burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft – are classed as “property crimes.”
Although arson is also a property crime, the Hierarchy Rule does not apply to the actual offense. In crimes in which arson occurs in conjunction with another violent or property crime, both crimes are reported.
The most common crimes in the U.S. tend to be property crimes:
- Larceny / Theft (Property) – larceny-theft is the most common crime, far outweighing any other
- Burglary (Property)
- Motor Vehicle Theft (Property)
- Aggravated Assault (Violent)
- Robbery (Violent)
To calculate our crime rate state rankings, we have combined the FBI’s property crime rate with their violent crime rate (both calculated per capita) to establish an accurate crime rate total for each state.
U.S. States: Property & Violent Crime Rates
|5||New Jersey||10||Rhode Island|
#11 – #50
|20||North Dakota||30||Delaware||40||Oregon||50||New Mexico|
Source: FBI Crime Statistics
The Happiest State in the U.S.: The Calculation
In order to determine the most accurate answer to our question: “Which is the happiest U.S. state in the nation?” we decided to keep things relatively simple. As discussed earlier, we also decided that some of our “measurable happiness criteria” carried more weight and were of more significance than others, deemed our “primary criteria.”
In our final calculation, the ranking of each state in each of the 5 primary criteria will be multiplied by a factor of 2 – a scientific way of saying we’ll double it.
Primary Measurable Happiness Criteria:
- Average Household Income
- Health Care
- Mental Health
SpringBoard Recovery’s Method of Calculation
After applying the doubling factor to the 5 primary criteria, we simply added all of the separate rankings together, and divided by 10. This provided us with a “happiness potential” for each individual U.S. state.
We were then able to rank these results (with the lowest “happiness potential” result obviously being in 1st place), and so find the U.S. state to be duly awarded the title of “The Happiest State in the U.S.”
Here’s an example calculation:
“Happiness Potential”: Arizona
|1||Household Income||37 / 74||Ranking Positions Total:|
|3||Health Care||21 / 42|
|5||Well-Being||25 / 50|
|6||Mental Health||48 / 96|
|7||Drug & Alcohol Use||32|
|8||Family||42 / 84||
And so, to our results table, depicting the Happiness Potential for every U.S. state:
The Happiest State in the U.S.Happiness Potential Final Scores (HPFS)
|TOP 10 HAPPIEST U.S. STATES|
|16||NTH. DAKOTA||32.8||26||IDAHO||47.0||36||NTH. CAROLINA||54.8|
And the winner is…
Massachusetts: “The Happiest State in the U.S.”
As we stated at the beginning of our study report, one of the very best definitions of “happiness” we found was written by psychology researcher and author Sonja Lyubomirsky:
“The experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
So if you’re looking for the perfect place to experience joy, contentment, or positive well-being, and you wish to feel that your life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile, it would appear the state to go and live in is Massachusetts.
Ironically, our study of “The Happiest State” has led us back to the origin of the nation we know today as the United States of America, back to the very place where the Pilgrim Fathers chose to settle over 400 hundred years ago.
Our research reveals that Massachusetts tops the rankings for Well-Being, Mental Health, and Family, and features in the top 10 states for Average Household Income, Life Expectancy, Health Care, Poverty, Firearm Mortality, and Crime Rates.