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America’s happiest cities are in, er, Louisiana

Scientists have an insatiable desire to reduce the immeasurable into plain, hard numbers. Even happiness, it turns out, can be reduced to a number somewhere between 1 (ecstatic) and -1 (suicidal).  

The researchers responsible, from Harvard and the Vancouver School of Economics, were trying to answer the age-old question of which are the US’ happiest cities, and they drew their data from responses to a nationwide survey which asked 300,000 people how “satisfied” they were(adjusting for for age, sex, race, income and other factors that could affect happiness). Each city was then awarded an index number, based on the average response.

 Happiness levels in particular cities were, the paper notes, fairly consistent over the years – even in economically failing cities, “the available facts suggest that cities that are now declining were also unhappy in their more prosperous past”. Here’s some maps of the results: green cities are happiest, red are unhappiest.

The greatest concentration of “happy” cities is in the southeast, and along the coast. The most unhappy cities are clustered in the northeast – and, perhaps surprisingly, on the coast of California.

The happiest state of all is Louisiana, which hosts three of the 20 happiest metro areas. This is perhaps the biggest surprise of all: the state isn’t known for its residents’ unbridled joy, except perhaps on Mardi Gras. According to the US Census Bureau, it’s also the tenth poorest state by median incomes. We can only assume jazz and crayfish are the key.

One other finding is worth noting: money doesn’t make you happy. The unhappiest cities were in the northeast, which also happens to contain eight of the 10 richest states by median household income. New York City was in the bottom ten (it received an index of -0.1227515), while Pennsylvania’s Scranton-Wilkes-Barre-Hazleton metro area, the home town of Vice President Joe Biden, was the unhappiest of all.

The resesarchers’ offerered two, related theories to explain all this. One is that happiness isn’t our main motivation. In their words:

“Differences in happiness and subjective well-being… weakly support the view that the desires for happiness and life satisfaction do not uniquely drive human ambitions…

The other is that, well, you can put a price on happiness:

“An alternative view is that humans are quite understandably willing to sacrifice both happiness and life satisfaction if the price is right. Indeed, the residents of unhappier metropolitan areas today do receive higher real wages – presumably as compensation for their misery.”
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