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Research finds the happiest US States match a million Americans’ own happiness states

Professor Andrew Oswald , University of WarwickNew research by the UK’s University of Warwick and Hamilton College in the US has used the happiness levels of a million individual US citizens to discover which are the best and worst states in which to live in the United States.  New York and Connecticut come bottom of a life-satisfaction league table, and Hawaii and Louisiana are at the top.  The analysis reveals also that happiness levels closely correlate with objective factors such as congestion and air quality across the US’s 50 states.

 The new research published in the elite journal Science on 17th December 2009 is by Professor Andrew Oswald of the UK’s University of Warwick and Stephen Wu of Hamilton College in the US.   It provides the first external validation of people’s self-reported levels of happiness.  “We would like to think this is a breakthrough.  It provides an justification for the use of subjective well-being surveys in the design of government policies, and will be of value to future economic and clinical researchers across a variety of fields in science and social science” said Professor Oswald.

 The researchers examined a 2005- 2008 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System random sample of 1.3 million United States citizens in which life-satisfaction in each U.S. state was measured.  This provided a league table of happiness by US State reproduced below.  The researchers decided to use the data to try to resolve one of the most significant issues facing economists and clinical scientists carrying out research into human well-being.

Researchers have to rely on people’s self declared levels of happiness – but how can one trust those self declarations? There have been studies that try to match declared levels of happiness to clinical signs of stress such as blood pressure. That has been useful, but one cannot know for sure whether those physiological signs are driving happiness or whether the reverse is true. Researchers have, for decades, longed for a more clearly external scientific  check on, and corroboration of, well-being survey answers.

The two researchers stumbled on a parallel approach that allowed them to do such a check. They discovered research by Stuart Gabriel and colleagues from UCLA published in 2003 which considered objective indicators for each individual State of the USA such as: precipitation; temperature; wind speed; sunshine; coastal land; inland water; public land; National Parks; hazardous waste sites; environmental ‘greenness’; commuting time; violent crime; air quality; student-teacher ratio; local taxes; local spending on education and highways; cost of living. This allowed the creation of a rank order of US states showing which should provide the happiest living experience. This was a truly external data source that could be used to check the self declared levels of happiness; Gabriel’s team had no happiness data in 2003 that could allow the check to be completed.

But Professors Oswald and Wu were able to do the first state-by-state USA happiness calculations.  They then obtained Gabriel’s numbers.  When the two rankings were compared, they found a close correlation  between people’s subjective life-satisfaction scores and objectively estimated quality of life.

The lead author on the study, Professor Andrew Oswald from the University of Warwick, said:

"The beauty of this statistical method is that we are able to look below the surface of American life -- to identify the deep patterns in people's underlying life satisfaction and happiness from Alabama to Wyoming.  The type of study is new to the United States.  We are the first to be able to do this calculation -- partly because we are fortunate enough to have a random anonymized sample of 1.3 million Americans.  But we could not have done it without the early painstaking work by Gabriel’s team." 

 “The state-by-state pattern is of interest in itself.  But it also matters scientifically.  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.  And they do match.  When human beings give you an answer on a numerical scale about how satisfied they are with their lives, you should pay attention.  

People’s happiness answers are true, you might say.  This suggests that life-satisfaction survey data might be tremendously useful for governments to use in the design of economic and social policies.” said Oswald.

Professor Oswald expressed caution in how some of the exact results should be interpreted – for example, for the state of Louisiana in the survey following the disruption in caused by Hurricane Katrina, but was confident that the data on most states was a true reflection of well-being levels saying:

“We have been asked a lot whether we expected that states like New York and California would do so badly in the happiness ranking.  Having visited and lived in various parts of the US, I am only a little surprised.   Many people think these states would be marvellous 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.  In a way, it is like the stock market.  If everyone thinks it would be great to buy stock X, that stock is generally already overvalued.  Bargains in life are usually found outside the spotlight.  It seems that exactly the same is true of the best places to live." 

1 Louisiana
2 Hawaii
3 Florida
4 Tennessee
5 Arizona
6 Mississippi
7 Montana
8 South Carolina
9 Alabama
10 Maine
11 Alaska
12 North Carolina
13 Wyoming
14 Idaho
15 South Dakota
16 Texas
17 Arkansas
18 Vermont
19 Georgia
20 Oklahoma
21 Colorado
22 Delaware
23 Utah
24 New Mexico
25 North Dakota
26 Minnesota
27 New Hampshire
28 Virginia
29 Wisconsin
30 Oregon
31 Iowa
32 Kansas
33 Nebraska
34 West Virginia
35 Kentucky
36 Washington
37 District of Columbia
38 Missouri
39 Nevada
40 Maryland
41 Pennsylvania
42 Rhode Island
43 Massachusetts
44 Ohio
45 Illinois
46 California
47 Indiana
48 Michigan
49 New Jersey
50 Connecticut
51 New York

 oswald/ Wu research



Note for Editors: Professor Oswald was able to conduct this research thanks to an ESRC Professorial Fellowships at the  University of Warwick. These ESRC Professorial Fellowships are aimed at leading senior social scientists. These awards are intended to push back the frontiers of social science by allowing the UK's leading scholars the time and opportunity to carry out cutting edge research that will deepen our understanding of a number of critical social scientific questions in areas that will have an impact on the future of our society. The provision of salary support, research assistant support and the linking of the Fellowships with PhD studentships is designed to foster high quality and innovative advances in the social sciences. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK 's largest  organisation for  funding  research on economic  and social issues.

For further information please contact:

Professor Andrew Oswald, Department of Economics,
University of Warwick mobile/cell +44 (0)7876 217717

Stephen Wu , Hamilton College US


Peter Dunn, Head of Communications, University of Warwick
+44 (0)2476 523708 mobile +44(0)7767 655860

PR134 PJD 17th December 2009