Monday, December 21, 2009

TIME: Higher Incomes, Less Happiness

Higher Incomes, Less Happiness
Posted by Brad Tuttle Monday, December 21, 2009 at 9:50 am

A recently released study by the CDC reveals that people who live in sunny, warm states—Hawaii, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arizona are the top 5—report the highest levels of satisfaction in their lives. But what I find most interesting is what's going on at the bottom of the list: The states with the least happy people tend to be the ones with the highest median incomes.

Check out the happiness rankings. Here's a snippet from the bottom of the list, which includes the District of Columbia (hence there are 51 entries rather than 50), and which ranks New York dead last:

39. Nevada
40. Maryland
41. Pennsylvania
42. Rhode Island
43. Ohio
44. Massachusetts
45. Illinois
46. California
47. New Jersey
48. Indiana
49. Michigan
50. Connecticut
51. New York

Most people think of a lot of these states as very well-to-do, and they are. According to the Census, the median income throughout the U.S. was $52,175 in 2008. Nine of the bottom 13 states have a higher median income than the U.S. as a whole; of those 13, only the hard-hit industrial states Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are below the national median. Perhaps most interestingly, the three richest states—Connecticut, Maryland, and New Jersey, all with median incomes above $68K—are all on the "less happy" end of the scale.

There are holes in any theory on happiness: California (#46), for instance, is an obvious sunny-and-warm state where people aren't all that happy, apparently. If sunshine was a prime factor in happiness, you'd think that Washington, Maine, and Alaska would be way down on the list, but they're not (#36, #10, and #12, respectively). And just because people make decent money, it doesn't mean they're unhappy: Hawaii (#2) boasts one of the highest median incomes ($66K). It's all relative to the cost of living, of course, and other factors—like traffic.

An AP story that sums up the rankings quotes one of the academics that poured over the data. Was he surprised that New York and California, where it seems like everyone says they want to live, were among the least happy states?

"I am only a little surprised," he said. "Many people think these states would be marvelous 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… 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, etceteras — in their own state. And they do match."

In other words, too many people can ruin a good thing.

Also, much in the way that you shouldn't assume that homeowners are happier than renters (they're not), you shouldn't assume that people living in high-income areas are happier (they're obviously not). Part of the problem is that some people move to these areas in order to feel rich and successful—like they've "made it"—and yet everywhere they look, there's someone who is richer and more successful than they are.

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