article

08.16.10

Who's the Happiest?

Who's happiest? In theory, a married born-again Christian orthodontist who lives in Costa Rica. Anneli Rufus on 15 stats that indicate who among us is most satisfied with their lives.

1. Republicans are 15 percent happier than Democrats.

In a Pew Research Center survey, 45 percent of Republicans described themselves as being very happy, compared with 30 and 29 percent of Democrats and independents, respectively. Republicans have been consistently happier than Democrats every single year since Pew began conducting these polls in 1972, and were 10 percent happier than Dems even during Jimmy Carter's term.

Paul Taylor et al. (2006): Are we happy yet? A Pew Research Center Social Trends Report.

2. Older people are 18 percent happier than young people.

In a Harris poll, 44 percent of people aged 65 and over described themselves as happy, compared to 30 percent of 25-to-29-year-olds, 30 percent of 30-to-39-year-olds, and only 26 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds. University of California psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, notes that seniors "are emotionally wiser: They don't spend as much time with people who make them unhappy as young people do, and they don't take as many risks."

Regina Corso et al. (2010): Harris Poll Interactive Annual Happiness Index.

3. Residents of Hawaii are 8.5 percent happier than residents of West Virginia.

According to Gallup's annual Well-Being Index, the Aloha State is the nation's happiest, the Mountain State its saddest (and also its most obese.) The other happiest states are Montana, Minnesota, Utah, Iowa, Alaska, Nebraska, and both Dakotas. Scholars analyzing the WBI and taking into account all of its variables—including physical health, working conditions, and access to necessities—produced an additional study concluding that "states with large gay populations, such as Vermont, California, Massachusetts, Washington, and New Mexico, tend to have higher levels of well-being than do states with comparatively smaller gay populations, such as West Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Ohio."

State of Well-Being 2009: Gallup-Healthways City, State & Congressional District Well-Being Report.

Richard Florida et al. (2009): Happy states of America: A state-level analysis of psychological, economic and social well-being. Journal of Research in Personality, 43 (6), 1073-1082.

4. If you're a stay-at-home mom, there's a 36 percent chance that you're very happy.

And if you're a working mom, your chance of being very happy is exactly the same: 36 percent. And both types of moms share a 14 percent chance of being unhappy. But working moms have a 5 percent higher chance of being moderately happy. "What's so interesting is that often women without kids are found to be happier, and yet we are all trained to 'want' a happily-ever-after that includes children," says Hip Mama magazine founder Ariel Gore, author of Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness.

Kim Parker (2009): The harried life of the working mother, a Pew Research Center Social Trends Report.

5. Those born with two long alleles of the gene known as 5HTT are 17.3 percent happier than those with two short 5HTT alleles.

Maybe it's out of our hands. 5HTT facilitates the transport of serotonin. Alleles are DNA sequences that determine a gene's degree of efficiency. "Genetic factors significantly influence individuals' subjective well- being," write the authors of the study that yielded this stat. "We have identified one particular gene variant—5HTT long—as having a sizeable positive association with self-reported life satisfaction."

Jan-Emmanuel De Neve et al. (2010): Genes, economics and happiness. University of Zurich Working Paper no. 475

6. Married people are 19 percent happier than unmarried people.

43 percent of married people describe themselves as very happy, compared to 24 percent of singles. What's more, married moms are 14 percent happier than single moms. "This is 100 percent financial," asserts Gore of the married mothers statistic. But she also found something surprising: "When I matched moms for income, the single mothers were actually significantly happier."

Paul Taylor et al. (2006): Are we happy yet? A Pew Research Center Social Trends Report.

7. Members of the clergy are 509 percent happier than gas-station attendants.

According to the University of Chicago study that yielded this finding, clergy and firefighters make up the happiest of all professions, followed by travel agents, butlers, and architects. Special-ed teachers are 346 percent happier than amusement-park attendants, pilots are 222 percent happier than construction workers, and actors are 364 percent happier than roofers. And if you're an orthodontist, there's a 99 percent chance that you're happy—according to a study published in the world's only major nonprofit orthodontics-industry journal.

Tom Smith (2007): Job satisfaction in the United States. General Social Survey, National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago.

S.S. Heying et al (2007): The success of orthodontic satellite practices. The Angle Orthodontist, 77 (5), 875-880.

8. Americans are 200 percent happier than Cameroonians.

With its Happy Planet Index, the New Economics Foundation tracks emotional, environmental, and other types of well-being worldwide. The USA's HPI score matches Australia's and Sweden's, but doubles those of Cameroon, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates are tied happinesswise, but both are three times happier than Tanzania. Also tied, Kazakhstan and Bhutan are happier than Moldova, but sadder than Laos. The world's happiest country? Costa Rica, where, as the researchers point out, "almost 10 percent of the population live on under $2 a day."

The Happy Planet Index 2.0: Why good lives don't have to cost the Earth, 2009: a project of the New Economics Foundation

9. Rich people are 27 percent happier than poor people.

Shocker: half of those earning at least $150,000 a year describe themselves as very happy, compared to only 23 percent of those whose household income is below $20,000.

Paul Taylor et al. (2006): Are we happy yet? A Pew Research Center Social Trends Report.

10. If a friend living within half a mile of you becomes happy, there's a 42 percent chance that you'll become happy too.

Moreover, your chances for happiness increase 15.3 percent if someone intimately involved with you becomes happy, 9.8 percent when a friend of a friend becomes happy, and 5.6 percent when a friend of a friend of a friend becomes happy. "Joy is contagious, as are most emotions. This is because we are wired for empathy," says James Baraz, coauthor of Awakening Joy: 10 Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Real Happiness. "Just hearing about someone else’s happiness can affect us. Even if we don’t hear about that person, the happiness travels."

James H. Fowler and Christakis, Nicholas A. (2008): Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal 337:a2338.

11. Grateful people are 25 percent happier than ingrates.

The University of California psychology professor whose studies yielded this stat instructed one of his control groups to write "gratitude journals" in which they listed things they were thankful for. Upon the study's conclusion, this group identified itself as 25 percent happier than both a neutral group and a group that was instructed to list "hassles or annoyances that bothered them each day," counting burdens instead of blessings. Six months after the study was completed, the grateful group had fully retained its happiness advantage. "When we’re grateful, we feel we’ve received a blessing," Baraz says. "Even on a physical level, our bodies feel lighter and more open."

Emmons, Robert. Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007, p. 30.

12. African-Americans are 8 percent happier than Caucasians.

Forty percent of the African-American respondents in the latest Harris Poll Interactive Annual Happiness Index described themselves as happy, compared to 32 percent of white respondents, who as a group became 3 percent unhappier in a single year.

Regina Corso et al. (2010): Harris Poll Interactive Annual Happiness Index.

13. If your sibling who lives within a mile of you becomes happy, your chance of being happy increases by 14 percent.

The moods of distant siblings have no such effects, write the authors of the study that produced this stat. "We don't yet know the causes and effects. Could it be that the siblings are living in the same neighborhood, and this neighborhood is safer or wealthier or otherwise better?" wonders Lyubomirsky, who has received a grant from Notre Dame University to study more precisely how happiness propagates. "If I tell you to do an act of kindness to Peter, I can see whether Peter will then do an act of kindness to Susie and whether people who observe this will feel better, too."

James H. Fowler and Christakis, Nicholas A. (2008): Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal 337:a2338.

14. Starbuck's fans are 2 percent happier than McDonald's fans.

Thirty one percent of people "who prefer to have a Starbucks in their community describe themselves as very happy. So do 29 percent of those who would rather have a McDonald's in their neighborhood," write the authors of the Pew survey that produced this stat. Twenty seven  percent of those with no preference described themselves as very happy.

Paul Taylor et al. (2009): McDonald's and Starubuck's: 43% Yin, 35% Yang: A Pew Research Center Social and Demographic Trends Survey.

15. If you're an Evangelical Christian, there's a 99 percent chance you're very happy.

Or are you? The study that produced that dubious stat was conducted by the evangelically oriented Barna Group. According to a more credible Pew survey, Evangelicals are 10 percent happier than other Protestants, and folks of any faith who frequently attend religious services are happier than those who don't. Forty three percent of those attending services weekly or more call themselves very happy, compared to 31 percent of those who attend monthly and 26 percent of those who never attend services. "The biggest reason for this is the social support, the strong sense of community, and emphasis on family life" that avid religious participation usually provides, Lyubomirsky says.

Barna Group Update: People's faith flavor influences how they see themselves (2002).

Paul Taylor et al. (2006): Are we happy yet? A Pew Research Center Social Trends Report.

Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and the Nautilus Award-winning Stuck: Why We Don't (or Won't) Move On, and the coauthor of still more, including Weird Europe and The Scavengers' Manifesto. Her books have been translated into numerous languages, including Chinese and Latvian. In 2006, she won a Society of Professional Journalists award for criticism.