Finding Your Happy Place

Where can you find happiness? According to a recent study from WalletHub, you can find it in Fremont or San Jose, California. It you’re in Madison, Wisconsin, you won’t be quite as happy, but you’ll still be ahead of 98.5% of the U.S. Fremont, San Jose and Madison are the three happiest cities in America.

If you live in Shreveport, Louisiana, Huntington, West Virginia or Detroit, Michigan, your life may well be a giant sucking hole of despair. Statistically, anyway. Those are the three least happy cities in the US.

Again, WalletHub’s words, not mine.

I know what you’re saying. You see these posts about happy places all the time in your feed. How much credence should you give them?

I’ll be honest. Normally, I scroll right past them. I don’t know what made me look at this study. Maybe it’s because I’ve recently been thinking stock of my own level of happiness. Or maybe I was thinking, “What the hell? I have a few minutes. Let’s try to quantify this whole happiness thing.”



The time might be right. As we claw our way out of a global pandemic and the various other catastrophes that battle for our attention in our news feed, we can’t be blamed for wanting a little more happiness in our lives.

Also, more of us are choosing to work virtually from home. Wouldn’t it make sense to situate that home in the place where you’re happiest? So why shouldn’t that place be Fremont, California? And I’m told Madison has great cheese curds.

So today I’m going to help you find that happy place.

First, maybe the focus on cities is a little too narrow. Who says we’re happiest in a city? Recent  research has found that yes, in poorer countries, odds are you’ll be happier in a city than in the country. When the whole country is struggling to get by, there’s just more of what you need to survive in a city. But as countries become wealthier, that gap disappears and actually reverses itself, giving a slight happiness edge to those living beyond the city limits

Let’s broaden our focus a mite, out to the happiest states. According to Wallet Hub, the three happiest states are (in order), Hawaii, Maryland and Minnesota. If you live in West Virginia, you’d better start reexamining your life choices. It scored lowest.

But who says the U.S. is the be-all and end-all of happiness? According to the World Happiness Report, the five  happiest countries on earth are (again in order) Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and the Netherlands. The U.S. is quite a bit down the list, in the sixteenth slot.

Perhaps happiness is positively correlated with pickled herring and lingonberries.

Now, for reasons I’ll explore in a future post, I urge you to take this empirical approach to happiness with a grain of salt, but there must be something to all these rankings. These countries traditionally top the various lists of best places to life. One has to wonder why? Or, at least, this “one” wondered why.

So I put together a spread sheet of the 20 happiest countries in the study and started looking for the common denominators. I looked at five different potential candidates (including some from the Global Sustainability Competitive Index): Gross Domestic Product per Capita, Social Capital, Natural Capital, Governance Performance and Liberal Democracy.

First of all, money may not buy happiness, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. There was a pretty strong correlation between GDP per capita and the happiness score. It seems that, up to a point, we need enough money to be comfortable to be happy. But, as wealth accumulates, happiness begins to plateau. The world’s longest running happiness study has repeatedly shown this. Marc Schulz, author of “The Good Life,” said “money can’t buy us happiness, but it’s a tool that can give us security and safety and a sense of control over lives.”

Another fairly strong correlation was with Natural Capital, which is defined as having adequate access to clean water and air, as well as proximity to forests, oceans and healthy biodiversity. This had a correlation just slightly lower than the one with GDP per capita.

Much as I would have liked it to be a little higher, given my own political leanings, there was a weaker correlation between liberal democracy and happiness. But, in the silver lining category, there was a strong correlation between liberal democracy and governance performance. The world’s happiest places tend to be places with either a constitutional monarchy and/or a parliamentary system overseeing a social democracy. Take that for what it’s worth.

Surprisingly, the weakest correlation was between effective governance and happiness. That said, it was still a significant correlation, so it did play a part in creating the conditions required for happiness.

All of the above factors run the risk of us conflating correlation and causation. There are certain things that are table stakes for happiness. A reasonable degree of good governance, a safe environment and a healthy economy are three of these. We need them to be happy, but they don’t cause us to be happy.

The last factor, which had the strongest correlation by a significant margin, is different. Not surprisingly, social capital is a direct cause of happiness. If you want to be happy, live somewhere where people love and care for each other. Denmark, the second happiest place on earth, is the home of “hygge” -- a general sense of coziness. As I’ve said before, the Danes have “created an environment that leads to bumping into each other.”

 It’s in this beneficial societal friction where you’re statistically more likely to find happiness, wherever you live.

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