We live in our happy place (statistically, anyway)
Posted by adn_jomalley
Posted: December 28, 2009 – 9:20 pm
This just in, Alaska: We’re happy.
In a study published earlier this month in Science magazine, Alaska was ranked the 11th happiest state in the country. We beat out Washington (rank: 36) and Oregon (rank: 30), Colorado (rank: 21), sunny California (rank: 46) and New York, which ranked last.
Not to be a downer, but really? Here, where the dark, frigid days drag by all winter, and our alcohol abuse, instances of domestic violence and suicide rates lead the country? We’re happy?
I called one of the study authors, Stephen Wu, of Hamilton College in New York. He said other states with high rates of suicide had high marks for happiness, too. He called it “an interesting paradox.”
It’s not so much happiness, as in whether people feel depressed , he said, it’s how satisfied we are with our lives overall. The study asked people about satisfaction and then compared that subjective measure with objective factors that contribute to quality of life, like parks and public land, weather, air quality, proximity to a coastline, income, environmental “greenness,” commute times, crime rate, student-teacher ratio, taxes, spending on education and highways.
The study found that a number of quality-of-life factors were good in Alaska, and people here were generally content, he said. The study didn’t take into account suicide rates or other public health statistics like obesity. (That’s good, as we tend to be on the chunky side. We’re in the top 20 states for both adult and child obesity, according to one recent national study.
It might be dark here in the winter, but it’s very sunny in the summer, Wu pointed out, and so sunshine-wise, it might balance out (it does on a yearly basis, according to the Weather Service). Perhaps people’s moods do, too, like we get buzzed in the summer and that balances out our more subdued moods in the winter. The study was probably weighted toward life in urban Alaska, he said. In general, Alaskans have high incomes ($68,460, the fourth-highest in the country, according to the U.S. Census) and it’s pretty here. We have a lot of coastline and of public lands, he noted (more of both, it turns out, than any other state). We also have short commutes (about 18 minutes on average, the fifth-shortest commute in the country, according to the census) and very low taxes (the lowest average tax burden in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation).
It seems that lately statistics about Alaska keep coming across my desk. I couldn’t help wondering if any of them might also be contributing to our collective upbeat mood.
How about our relationships? We are in the top 10 in the country when it comes to the percentage of single men and women, according to the latest numbers from the census (and, single ladies, FYI: single men outnumber single women 131 to 100). We tend to get married a lot. In fact, we have some of the highest marriage rates in the country. And, we tend to wait until we’re older, toward the tail end of the 20s, to tie the knot. But divorce rates for men and women are still pretty high, in the top third, nationally.
Could it be spirituality (or lack thereof)? According to stats released this month from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Alaskans have the lowest church attendance in the country, and we’re also among the least likely to pray or believe in God. But then most Southern states, such as Mississippi, tend to be very religious, and many of them ranked even happier than we did. (Strange I thought Oregon was the lowest…)
Maybe it’s our parenting style? According the census, we have the third-highest percentage of households with children. Producers of a new show called “World’s Strictest Parents” did an unscientific poll online, asking about how parents would punish teenagers for behavior like bad grades and unsanctioned piercings. They ranked Alaska the second-strictest state, behind Arkansas.
Or gun ownership? We have among the highest rate of that in the country, and New York, the least happiest state, has among the lowest. A recent study from the Violence Policy Center showed we also have the third-highest rates of gun-related deaths, tying with Mississippi.
One thing that probably isn’t making us happy? The quality of our roads. A study released this month by the Reason Foundation found Alaska had the least cost-effective and efficient highways in the country. And, that’s what the authors came up with without driving in the ruts on the Glenn.
OK, I’ll stop. As you can see, trying to draw connections between all these numbers, between guns and God, clean air and highways and marriage rates, things quickly start getting ridiculous. Depending on how you crunch them, you can support just about any theory.
Which is one reason why I doubted the happiness study. Maybe the researchers just caught Alaskans in a good mood, like sometime in June, on a beautiful morning, right after coffee (we do have the highest per capita number of coffee shops in the country, BTW). Or maybe I was being cynical, maybe all darkness and suicides and alcoholism aside, most of us are content here in our scenic state with our low taxes, fat paychecks, short commutes and fresh air. Statistically, at least.