Ever wondered if you'd be happier in sunny Florida or snow-covered Minnesota? New research on state-level happiness could answer that question.
Florida and two other sunshine states made it to the Top 5, while Minnesota doesn't show up until number 26 on the list of happiest states. In addition to rating the smile factor of U.S. states, the research also proved for the first time that a person's self-reported happiness matches up with objective measures of well-being.
Essentially, if an individual says they're happy, they are.
"When human beings give you an answer on a numerical scale about how satisfied they are with their lives, it is best to pay attention. Their answers are reliable," said Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick in England. "This suggests that life-satisfaction survey data might be very useful for governments to use in the design of economic and social policies," Oswald said.
The happy-states list, however, doesn't match up with a similar ranking reported last month, which found that the most tolerant and wealthiest states were, on average, the happiest. Oswald says this past is based on raw averages of people's happiness in a state, and so doesn't provide meaningful results.
"That study cannot control for individual characteristics," Oswald told LiveScience. "In other words, all anyone has been able to do is to report the averages state-by-state, and the problem with doing that is you're not comparing apples with apples because the people who live in New York City are nothing like the individuals living in Montana."
Rather, Oswald and Stephen Wu, an economist at Hamilton College in New York, statistically created 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.
"Not much point in looking at the happiness of a Texas rancher compared to a nurse in Ohio," Oswald said.
The happiest states:
1. Louisiana 2. Hawaii 3. Florida 4. Tennessee 5. Arizona 6. Mississippi 7. Montana 8. South Carolina 9. Alabama 10. Maine
The scientists caution, however, that the top spot, Louisiana, might not reflect current levels of well-being since the data were collected before the disruption caused by Hurricane Katrina. They are confident that data for the other states does accurately reflect happiness levels.
See the full list of 50 states (and the District of Columbia) here.
Their results come from a comparison of two data sets of happiness levels in each state, one that relied on participants' self-reported well-being and the other an objective measure that took into account a state's weather, home prices and other factors that are known reasons to frown (or smile).
The self-reported information came from 1.3 million U.S. citizens who took part in a survey between 2005 and 2008.
"We wanted to study whether people's feelings of satisfaction with their own lives are reliable, that is, whether they match up to reality — of sunshine hours, congestion, air quality, etc — in their own state," Oswald said.
The results showed the two measures matched up. "We were stunned when it first came up on our screens, because no one has ever managed to produce a clear validation before of subjective well-being, or happiness, data," Oswald said.
They were also surprised at the least happy states, such as New York and Connecticut, which landed at the bottom two spots on the list.
"We were struck by the states that come at the bottom, because a lot of them are on the East Coast, highly prosperous and industrialized," Oswald said. "That's another way of saying they have a lot of congestion, high house prices, bad air quality."
He added, "Many people think these states would be marvelous places to live in. 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."
Would you be happier in another state?
Using both the subjective well-being results, which included individual characteristics like demographics and income, and the objective findings, the team could figure out how an individual would fare in a particular state.
"We can create a like-to-like comparison, because we know the characteristics of people in every state," Oswald said. "So we can adjust statistically to compare a representative person hypothetically put down in any state."
This new research will be published online on Dec. 17 by the journal Science.
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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.