Glad Tidings From the World of Happiness Studies

The pursuit of happiness is every American’s birthright, but some are better pursuers than others. The San Francisco Chronicle recently commissioned Michael Hagerty, a professor at the University of California at Davis, to rummage through the pertinent data and see where happy people abound. In this country, Hagerty found, research rebuts the notion that the West Coast is a happiness hotbed. Residents’ average happiness there is merely on a par with the country as a whole—7.29 on a 10-point scale. Rural places tend to be the happiest, with Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi topping the national list. Also full of cheer are the North Central states. The Mid-Atlantic region is the conspicuous happiness laggard. Taking a broader view of the topic, Hagerty says studies show Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden to be the happiest nations (with the U.S. coming in fifth). Japan and South Korea rate poorly—perhaps, suggests Hagerty, because people there ascribe less importance to personal happiness than to “family prosperity and honor.” Can money buy happiness? “Above the poverty level, more money does not add much to happiness.” In that regard, Hagerty’s analysis accords with a recent article by Robert Wright in Foreign Policy. In examining the effects of globalization, Wright concludes that “while poor nations seem to breed unhappiness, very rich nations don’t necessarily breed happiness.” The point of diminishing returns is reached more quickly than one might guess: On a global basis, “The point where more wealth ceases to imply more happiness is around $10,000 per capita annually,” he writes. Pointing to the U.S., Wright notes that while real per capita GDP rose 43 percent between 1975 and 1995, “the average happiness of Americans didn’t budge.”Wood River Gallery/Picture Quest