Sun and waves might be good for the soul, according to a new national survey naming Hawaii as tops in well-being among U.S. states — but the sunshine doesn't necessarily elbow out Northern Lights and snow, as Alaska also made the top 10 happiest states list.
The 2010 telephone survey was conducted by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31. Results showed the South may need some smile help, with 10 southern states falling into the lower range of the list. Many western states, however, shined in well-being, with five of the top 10 located in that region of the country. [Related: Happiest States Revealed by New Research]
The survey — which included a random sample of 352,840 adults ages 18 and older living in the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia — looked at six categories of well-being. These categories included life evaluation (self-evaluation about your present life situation and anticipated one in five years); emotional health; work environment (such as job satisfaction); physical health; healthy behavior; and basic access (access to health care, a doctor, a safe place to exercise and walk, as well as community satisfaction).
The top 10 states and their average well-being scores (out of a possible 100 points):
1. Hawaii: 71.0
2. Wyoming: 69.2
3. North Dakota: 68.4
4. Alaska: 68.3
5. Colorado: 68.0
6. Minnesota: 68.0
7. South Dakota: 68.0
8. Utah: 67.9
9. Connecticut: 67.9
10. Nebraska: 67.8
11. Massachusetts: 67.8
The bottom 10 states
1. West Virginia: 61.7
2. Kentucky: 61.9
3. Mississippi: 63.0
4. Arkansas: 63.7
5. Alabama: 63.7
6. Ohio: 63.8
7. Delaware: 64.2
8. Nevada: 64.2
9. Louisiana: 64.3
10. Michigan: 64.6
Hawaii's stellar placement was due to its scores on three well-being categories: life evaluation, emotional health and physical health. At the other end of the spectrum, West Virginia came in last by performing worst on those same three categories.
Delaware residents reported the worst work environments in the country, while those living in South Dakota were most positive about work conditions.
Compared with 2009 well-being results, Vermont still boasted the best overall health habits in America, and Kentucky continued to have the worst. Massachusetts residents indicated the best access to necessities crucial to high well-being, while Mississippi residents again reported the worst, with a score on this index even lower than it was in 2009.
Climbing the well-being ladder
With many states encountering fiscal problems that have led to layoffs and salary cuts of public employees along with public-school closings, Gallup experts say it'll be an upward climb to improve states' well-being scores. [5 Things That Will Make You Happier]
They say states must find a way to increase residents' access to good jobs and basic necessities — including medical care — while decreasing costly, chronic conditions, such as obesity and diabetes. These steps, Gallup says, will be the most likely ways to improve well-being.
But the role these factors play in a person's happiness has been up for debate. Happiness, it seems, is a pretty complex state.
Research published in December 2009 issue of the Journal of Research in Personality looked at the relationship between 2008 well-being scores and various factors, including economic indicators, education levels, personality traits and levels of inclusiveness. They found the states with higher gross regional product (GRP) per capita (level of productivity and standard of living), higher income levels and higher median housing value were significantly happier than poorer areas.
In addition, the happiest states in 2008 tended to have more residents with advanced educations and jobs that were considered "super-creative," such as architecture, engineering, computer and math occupations, library positions, arts and design work, as well as entertainment, sports and media occupations.
Researchers conducting another study, which was published in the Dec. 17, 2009 issue of the journal Science, generated a different happiest-states list that relied on people's self-reported evaluation of well-being. The team of researchers reported the self-evaluations matched up with objective measures of well-being.
The team publishing their work in Science used their data to statistically create 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.
Other studies have shown being happy means being old, male and Republican.
You can follow LiveScience Managing Editor Jeanna Bryner on Twitter @jeannabryner.
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Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.