The Happiest US State Is ...

Hamoa Beach in Maui. Fantasizing about a beach vacation may make someone inclined to ignore the negative considerations while gathering information about it, research indicates.
Hamoa Beach in Maui. Fantasizing about a beach vacation may make someone inclined to ignore the negative considerations while gathering information about it, research indicates. (Image credit: Maui Convention and Visitors Bureau)

They did it again. The Hawaiians are the happiest people in the nation, while West Virginia held its bottom spot with the lowest overall well-being among U.S. states, finds a new Gallup-Healthways poll.

No huge bumps up or down were seen between the 2011 and 2012 well-being rankings, though Vermont, Massachusetts and Iowa moved into the top 10 highest well-being in 2012. Seven of the top 10 spots went to Western and Midwestern states, while Southern states snagged the six lowest well-being slots.

The results are based on telephone interviews conducted from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2012, with a random sample of 353,564 Americans, ages 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

To understand state well-being, Gallup relied on six measures: 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, and community satisfaction).

Overall well-being scores range from 0 to 100, where 100 represents ideal well-being.

Top 10 states and their average well-being scores (out of a possible 100 points):

  • Hawaii: 71.1
  • Colorado: 69.7
  • Minnesota: 68.9
  • Utah: 68.8
  • Vermont: 68.6
  • Nebraska: 68.5
  • Montana: 68.5
  • New Hampshire: 68.4
  • Iowa: 68.1
  • Massachusetts: 68.1

The bottom 11 states:

  • South Carolina: 65.2
  • Oklahoma: 65.2
  • Nevada: 65.2
  • Indiana: 65.1
  • Louisiana: 64.7
  • Ohio: 64.6
  • Alabama: 64.2
  • Arkansas: 64.1
  • Tennessee: 64.0
  • Mississippi: 63.6
  • Kentucky: 62.7
  • West Virginia: 61.3

[See Full List of Happiest States]

Hawaiians were the most likely to say they were "thriving," snagging the highest score on Life Evaluation, the most likely to say they smiled or laughed a lot the day before the survey, and the least likely to report daily worry or stress (emotional health). Residents of the Aloha State also had the most positive workplace environments; Rhode Islanders indicated having the worst work environments.

West Virginians were the least likely to say they were thriving and the most likely to report depression; they also had the lowest emotional health and physical health, all of which kept the state at the very bottom of the well-being list.

Colorado, on the other hand, soared to the top of the physical health index, partly due to the state having the lowest percentage of obese residents in the United States. Even so, across the nation in Vermont, Gallup found residents with the healthiest behaviors, including eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables at least four times a week. Kentucky showed the unhealthiest behaviors, with the lowest percentage of residents indicating they ate healthy all day "yesterday." [7 Things That Will Make You Happy]

With the highest percentage of residents having health insurance, Massachusetts ranked highest for access to basic necessities. Mississippi scored the worst on this metric.

The nation's overall well-being has remained relatively constant between 2008 and 2012, with the most recent score of 66.7 compared with 2011's 66.2. "The lack of progress among the states with the lowest well-being scores may be related to low household income levels in these states," Gallup officials said in a statement. "Nearly all of the states with the lowest wellbeing scores in 2012 are also states with the lowest median household incomes."

Both public and private sectors can take part in improving well-being, though happiness, as many may know, is a tough one to crack.

So what makes a person happy? A study published in the December 2009 issue of the Journal of Research in Personality found that 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. The study looked at Gallup's 2008 well-being scores, finding that the happiest states that year also 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.

Other studies have shown being happy means being old, male and Republican. And for older couples, sex may be key, as a study reported in 2011 found that those who engaged in sexual activity were more likely to be happy with their relationship and their lives than those who had less frequent sex.

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Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

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.