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The happiest states in America, ranked. Is your state one of them?

WalletHub's '2018 Happiest States in America' report finds that the happiest places are rich in nature and community. See how your state stacks up.
Image: Hikers on the Park Avenue trail in the Arches National Park near Moab, Utah on April 21, 2018.
Hikers on the Park Avenue trail in the Arches National Park near Moab, Utah on April 21, 2018.Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images file

“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is one of the best-known phrases in the United States Declaration of Independence. We have Thomas Jefferson to thank for the phrase, which has gone on to play significant roles in court cases including 1967’s Loving v. Virginia in which the Supreme Court invalidated a Virginia law that prohibited the interracial marriage, noting the "freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men."

We may all be free to pursue happiness, but where we live in the U.S plays a deeper role in this quest than we may think, or so new research from WalletHub suggests. The personal finance site and app ranked 2018’s Happiest States in America, finding that some states are doing significantly better in this pursuit than others.

"We analyzed the 50 states across 31 metrics, which were chosen in conjunction with several academic experts,” says Jill Gonzalez, WalletHub analyst. “The metrics were selected based on their relevance as well as availability of data. The most important metrics were the share of adult depression, suicide rates, number of work hours, job security and idealness of weather."

Hawaii and Utah take top slots; Arkansas and West Virginia dwell at the bottom

The five happiest states based on these metrics are Hawaii, Utah, Minnesota, and North Dakota, with California coming in at No. 5. The bottom-ranking states are Oklahoma, Alaska, Louisiana, and Arkansas, with West Virginia slumping in at No. 50.

"There are some differences from last year's results, like Hawaii moving up from third to first place this year, or North Dakota up from fourteenth to fourth this year,” says Gonzalez. “However, we do not encourage comparisons between reports from different years, as we have updated our methodology since then."

Hawaii is pricey but laid-back and outdoorsy

Perhaps the most standout quality of this list is what lies in WalletHub’s intro, which notes that “money doesn’t drive happiness” and cites that “happiness only increases with wealth up to an annual income of $75,000”, based on 2010 research.

This is a cheerful but difficult sentiment to buy, particularly when you consider that Hawaii has the highest cost of living in the U.S. You’re probably not relocating to Hawaii unless you’re doing very well financially, and if you’re living there without the means, you could be among the nearly 11 percent of the population struggling with poverty.

But Hawaii has something that is invaluable: a relatively relaxed attitude with a predilection for social interaction and outdoorsy adventures.

“Hawaii’s happiness [ranking] is really attributed to culture,” Pamela Gail Johnson, founder of The Secret Society of Happy People tells NBC News Better. “There's a city environment, but culturally, it's more laid-back, which contributes to emotional and physical well-being. There’s lots of beaches, walking and hiking. It’s an environment that fosters a ‘stop and smell the roses’ mentality.”

Still, it’s interesting that of all 50 states, Hawaii had the lowest-adequate sleep rate. Perhaps there’s an argument for pulling an all-nighter in the name of happiness?

Utah touts low divorce rates, work-life balance and community efforts

Utah, the second-happiest state based on this ranking, is of course, very different in both in geography and culture than Hawaii. But it ranks highly on a variety of levels; it’s first in fewest work hours, volunteer rate and has the lowest divorce rate. It also came in second (after Colorado, which ranked at 18th overall) in highest sports participation rate.

“We know that if you ever look for a happy pick-me-up, helping others, is a boost,” says Johnson. “Utah’s volunteer rate certainly contributes to its [second-place ranking]. Having the lowest divorce rate also says something because our significant relationships, whether marriage or friendship, play a huge role in our happiness.”

A connection to nature is profoundly powerful

Having beautiful and accessible natural scenery within reach is also a perk for Utah, California and other high-ranking states.

“Some explanation around places such as California, Hawaii, Utah and North Dakota’s [high ranking] suggest that connection to nature can help support happiness, and that time spent outdoors can truly teach about containment, lower expectations from the artificial, technology-driven world around us and help foster that connectedness to the earth and other people,” says Christie Tcharkhoutian a marriage and family therapist .

“An additional component of the happiness that may contribute to residents of California is the aspect of hope and purpose,” she adds. “Many people live in California to pursue their dreams and that sense of purpose that you are working towards something meaningful, even if you haven’t yet reached your end goal, can provide more access to happiness as a state of mind as that pursuit continues.”

West Virginia and Arkansas’s economy woes are red flags

Though Wallethub champions the idea that you can’t buy happiness, bottom-ranking states West Virginia and Arkansas underscore the importance of a vital economy and the unhappiness the lack of it can bring. West Virginia was the worst state for business according to a 2017 poll while Arkansas came in at 41. Both states improved just slightly in the same poll in 2018 coming in at 48 and 40, respectively. These states were also bottom dwellers on WalletHub’s 2018 Best & Worst State Economies list.

“I think both in West Virginia and Arkansas you have to look at the economy,” says Johnson. “They rank low on the work front and on the emotional and physical well being front and I think a piece of that is interconnected to jobs. I doubt the average wage there [amounts] to $75k a year. This could contribute to the high rate of adult depression (Arkansas came in at 48 and West Virginia at 49).”

Remember: you can be happy anywhere

I live in Los Angeles, the city in the fifth-happiest state according to this report, but it’s stressful to make ends meet here and I can’t help but wonder, would I be happier in Hawaii where the vibe is more relaxed? Or maybe Utah where the cost of living is lower and the work hours aren’t insane?

But I know I’m not about to pick up and go, so I have to remember that happiness is a place that exists wherever I make it.

“It is important to understand happiness as a state of being, that can be experienced, rather than a status quo or end goal to ‘be achieved,’” says Tcharkhoutian.

Happiness comes down to being physically and emotionally healthy, pursuing things that are meaningful to us personally and contributing to something larger than ourselves.

Frank Niles, PhD, a social scientist, adventure athlete and executive educator finds that happiness does seem to have a formula — and zip codes aren’t a part of it.

“Happiness comes down to being physically and emotionally healthy, pursuing things that are meaningful to us personally and contributing to something larger than ourselves,” says Niles, adding that time with other people is critical to this pursuit. “If you think about it, the most meaningful experiences we’ve had in our lives have been with other people. So, if you were to ask me, ‘What can I do to become more happy?’ I would say live fully in the present, seek ways to make a difference in the lives of other people everyday, and make time in your life to build healthy relationships that are defined by giving and receiving support.”


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