New data finds which states are the happiest (hint: they’re probably not the ones you would predict). It’s interesting to see how your state rates, or to dream of a potential relocation. But it’s also helpful to know what matters most to happiness—things you can do to increase your own state of happiness based on the conditions around you and based on your own strategies.
According to plenty of research, your happiness arises from three sources: genes, conditions and choices. Perhaps surprisingly, there is a gene for happiness. Your context also matters—what you’ve been through before and the situation you’re in now. But what’s also important in the happiness equation, are your choices. Even if you didn’t win the gene lottery and even if your situation isn’t idyllic, you can create the conditions for happiness which will have a positive impact on your level of satisfaction, joy and contentment.
So as a starting point, which states are happiest? According to a study by Amerisleep, the happiest state is North Dakota (#1) followed by Vermont, Nebraska, South Dakota and California. The least happy states were Kentucky (#50) followed by West Virginia, Tennessee, Nevada and Ohio (see complete list below). The rankings of state happiness were based on combined metrics of residents’ health, education, number of working hours, safety and the like (see complete list of factors below).
At the top of the list, North Dakota was ranked happiest, because it provided for key factors such as income growth, open spaces and number of national parks. Vermont took the second spot for happiness especially because of health statistics such as lower rates of depression, better sleep reported by residents and access to hospitals. Nebraska was ranked third and this was partially based on lower commute times, access to health clubs and typical number of working hours among its citizens. California come in fourth, and one of the contributing factors was its amount of green space compared to other states.
How to Be Happy Wherever You Live
But you can be happy no matter where you live, and this is where the data gets especially interesting—based on what makes people happy. According to a global index of over 100,000 participants by OCED Better Life Index, people are united in what they desire and what is most important to them.
Here’s what makes people happy in order of importance: health, education, work-life balance, environment, safety, housing, income. And based on this data, you can take action in order to accomplish greater levels of joy and satisfaction.
Know What’s Important to You
One of the keys to happiness is knowing what’s important to you. Perhaps you agree with the majority of people and value elements like health and education. But if you don’t, that works too. The key is to know what’s most important, so you can spend your time, focus and energy in the pursuits which are most meaningful to you. The old adage is true: How you spend your moments is how you spend your life. Consider your schedule as you would your budget, and spend time on the things that match who you want to be, what you want to accomplish and the relationships you want to have with your people.
Take Action to Improve Your Conditions
The situation around you is important to your happiness, but you also have the power to create the conditions which make you happiest as well. In addition, research has shown when you take action to improve your circumstances, the feelings of agency and empowerment contribute to happiness as well.
Health is correlated with happiness and it is a priority for many people. If this is true for you, protect time to exercise, and do your best to get adequate sleep. Get help if you suffer from depression or anxiety. You can also consider using an app to track your food intake as you seek to get healthy. If you value work-life fulfillment as most people do, know your happiness both inside and outside of work matters. Volunteering has been correlated with greater happiness in separate studies and was part of this study as well. You can consider pitching into volunteer efforts which match your passions. Another element of work-life fulfillment in the global data is commute time. Consider relocating closer to your work so you can reduce your commute time or make your commute more rewarding by listening to audiobooks on the train or sharing the drive with a colleague in a carpool.
Another way to take action is to advocate for progress within your community. In the happiness index, safety, housing and income levels were correlated with happiness for most people, so you can consider changes close to home, joining efforts to improve these factors.
Take Advantage of What’s Around You
Not everyone lives in a state with tons of greenspace or large houses, but every location has something to appreciate and take advantage of. If you can’t walk by the river, wander a nearby neighborhood instead. If your location doesn’t have a downtown area to enjoy, grab coffee at the corner diner with a good friend as an alternative. Education is toward the top of the list of factors which people value for happiness, but if you don’t have access to educational outlets in your region, find an online opportunity and sign up along with a friend.
Make the best of what you have. Studies on happiness find a correlation between gratitude and happiness—greater appreciation tends to foster greater joy and contentment. So, appreciate what you have, and access whatever you can.
Let Go of the Need for Perfection
A myth of happiness is that it should be ever-increasing (happiness inflation). In reality, happiness ebbs and flows. You can have an overall sense of joy and contentment even if you have days when you’re down, or seasons of life in which you’re not singing from the mountaintops with unbridled enthusiasm.
Similarly, there are no perfect conditions. You thrive in aspects of your job, and there are things which aren’t your favorite. You love your partner, but there may be things which annoy you. And no place you choose to live is perfect. Any choice in life has pros and cons. The key is to select those which are as aligned as possible with what you love, and let go of the myth that there is a perfect pick you can make.
Prioritize what’s most important to you, and take steps to accomplish those things. Let the quest for perfection—or the wait for perfection—fall away. Simply make the best choices you can, and do your best to create the conditions which make you most happy.
While it’s possible to aggregate what makes people happy, and to rank the states where the conditions seem best for happiness, it’s also true that happiness is induvial. Be confident in your own preferences for happiness, and avoid comparing yourself with others. You can be in a state of happiness no matter where you live—by making great choices about your mindset and your actions.
Top 10 happy states include North Dakota, Vermont, Nebraska, South Dakota, California, Rhode Island, Iowa, Montana, Oregon and Utah. The least happy states include Kentucky at number 50, followed by West Virginia, Tennessee, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri and Washington.
The 17 factors which were used to rank each state’s level of happiness include: number of people suffering from depression, number of people reporting insufficient sleep, number of health clubs, number of suicides, average working hours, income growth, divorce rates, volunteer rates, average commute times, average house sizes, percentage of trees covering the state, number of national parks, amount of open spaces and beauty, safety, number of higher education sources, number of hospitals. These fit into the categories of people’s top priorities which include health, education, work-life balance, environment, safety, housing and income.