The researchers found that the results of the 2003 study correlated closely with their own, thereby validating the self-reported levels of happiness they received from survey participants.
One of the biggest surprises among the findings: California and New York fared poorly in the happiness rankings. "Many people think these states would be marvelous places to live in," said Professor Oswald in the release. "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."
Digging Deeper into Degrees of "Happiness"
If only things were as simple as Oswald explains them. A deeper dive into the numbers makes clear that the statistical differences between the happiest and gloomiest states are marginal, which somewhat diminishes the importance of the findings. Then, there's the question of methodology and the way in which the researchers controlled the results for "demographic differences."
"What we do in our study is to control for differences in income, education, age, marital and employment status and race," says Wu, who notes that all of these factors are known to be correlated with higher levels of happiness. As he explained it an email, they are essentially comparing the "life satisfaction of a representative individual" in each state.
It certainly appears that income was controlled when comparing the findings to median income households in 2008 as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau. Of the top-five happiest states in the study, only Hawaii ranked above the median U.S. household income. Conversely, of the bottom five, only Indiana and Michigan ranked below the U.S. median. The richest state, Maryland, ranked 40th in the happiness survey, while the poorest, Mississippi, ranked 6th.
Lots of Room for Interpretation
Yet, one look at a Gallup-Healthways Well Being Index, another recent survey measuring happiness in individual states that had dramatically different findings, makes it clear how much room for interpretation such studies leave. Gallup's survey of 355,000 Americans didn't control for the income differences. That survey ranked Utah, Hawaii, Wyoming, Colorado and Minnesota as the top five best states to live in. Arkansas, Ohio, Mississippi, Kentucky and West Virginia rounded out the bottom five. View the full list here.
While the Oswald/Wu study suggests that Southern sunshine states are the happiest, the Gallup study finds that states with wealthier, better educated and more tolerant residents are happiest. Again, though, the differences between happiest and gloomiest are small. Of course, the happiest states couldn't help but flaunt the results at mighty New York and California, which in turn were only too happy to snark back.
But, really, it's important to remember that overall, Americans in general are quite happy as measured by different international rankings. While the U.S. didn't make it to the top 10 in the recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, it was ranked ninth in the Legatum Prosperity Index.
Certainly, money isn't a key to happiness, as so many studies have found (although it sure can make life easier). The real secrets to happiness are the people who surround us -- friends, family, co-workers -- our hobbies, attitude and not the least, giving. If that doesn't sound like the essence of the holiday spirit -- what is?
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