Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Fri Mar 13th 2009 at 9:00am UTC

What Makes Happy States

So the past couple of days at the MPI – under the ever-watchful analytical eye of Charlotta Mellander – we took the Gallup happy states data and compared it to various measures of state economies. This is a first cut analysis and it’s dealing only with correlation or association and not causation, but the relationships are nonetheless interesting. Here’s a quick rundown.

Our analysis is in sync with what Will Wikinson already has pointed to: State happiness is associated with income (a correlation of .33 with our measure of average income), as well as housing prices (.49). Makes sense: People are willing to pay to live in happy places, and people with more income have more choices. And it’s even more closely associated with levels of human capital (that is, share of adults with a bachelor’s degree or above – it’s . 77)

And what about the creative class? Happy states appear to be creative states – at least as measured by the share of people employed in creative class jobs (with a correlation of .48). The correlations are even higher for the the super-creative core and the the overall creativity index (.53).

Makes you wonder: Are creatives more likely to live in happy places or are they more likely to be happy people? Well… psychologists have identified a powerful relationship between creativity and happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi finds that engaging in creative activities like writing, playing music, computer programming, mountain climbing, or chess is a major source of happiness. But in her workplace studies, Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School says it works the other way around: She finds that it’s happiness – or should I say happy workplaces – that generate creative thinking and workplace innovation as opposed to vice versa. Psychologist Barbara Fredricksons suggests that “positive” people are more open-minded, less racially biased, more likely to see the bigger picture, and ultimately more creative. So maybe this kind of thing scales up from who we are and what we do to where we live.

On that score, yes, happy states are also apparently those greater concentrations bohemians (.43), immigrants (.36 ), and gays (.32), as well as states with higher levels of high-tech industry (.22) or those with more innovative potential.

One worrying finding: States with a large concentration of the working class are far less happy – with a negative correlation of (-.51). That’s downright unhappy. Perhaps Marx was right after all about the alienation that comes from industrial work – or in this case the unhappiness found in working class locations. We’ll be doing more on the connection between economic structure and state happiness in the future.

Is there any connection between between happy states and the personality types that live there? Using data provided by Cambridge University psychologist Jason Rentfrow we were able to compare happy states to the concentrations of the five major personality types – extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness-to-experience, and neuroticism. While it may not come as a big surprise, neurotic states were far less happy states – the correlation between the two being (-.62). The correlations for all four other personality types were all insignificant.

Take a look at the graphs here and let us know what you see – and think.

21 Responses to “What Makes Happy States”

  1. Monte Asbury Says:

    I think Iowa is missing on graphs of Bohemians and Human Capital – and would especially love to see the latter.

  2. Monte Asbury Says:

    To my untrained eyes, the most dramatic correlation is found in the relationship of education (human capital) to well-being. Seems like we’re expressing the need for improved access to higher education in so many ways these days.

    Second, it now seems unsurprising that right-wing negativity caught on in places with large numbers of poor, working-class voters. One wonders if those states that are consistently unhappy are also places where people feel trapped, hopeless, and angry, making them, perhaps, especially vulnerable to demagoguery and skeptical of hopefulness.

  3. Swordsman Says:

    Agree with Asbury, but what with all the spammers lately?

  4. Sherri Says:

    Hola, New Mexico seems to be missing from the Well Being/Foreign Born plot. I’m working on an Arts & Cultural Audience Development project for immigrant populations. Could really use that particular chart if we’re included. Muchas Gracias

  5. Charlotta Says:

    New Mexico is in there but not spelled out. It is the dot close to Virginia (New Mexico gets 66.3 for well-being and 0.10 for immigrants).

  6. Troy Camplin, Ph.D. Says:

    I great up in Kentucky, went to MS for my MA and ended up in Texas for my Ph.D. (still here). Miserable in KY and MS, happy in Texas. In fact, my misery in KY drove me from recombinant gene technology to writing poetry and fiction. I’m still writing poetry and fiction, but also plays and scholarship. Not employed, but pretty happy all the same. Of course, I also now have a wife and 2 yr old daughter — and the wife’s pregnant with #2. Lots of happiness. I’m a job away from being both happy and relatively stress-free.

  7. John P. Says:

    It would be interesting to see many more of these maps such as mapping well-being vs. number of sunny days (and other climatic conditions), well-being vs. percentage of urban vs. rural, well-being vs. average age of population, to name a few.

  8. J Walker Smith Says:

    So some of the prior research on income and happiness shows a positive correlation only when every low income individuals (or countries) are included. Take out people (or countries) below the minimum threshold and there is no correlation. The theory is that money makes a difference up to a point, then makes no difference beyond that. Hence, I’m wondering what happens if you trim Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and West Virginia. Or would that even make any sense? I suppose those four are not the four poorest per capita income states in the U.S. But I’m wondering if there is such an effect in that on scatterplot on well-being and income. Because if not, then these results seem to be very much against the grain of most other social science research on the correlates of SWB. Perhaps not, but it just struck me looking through them.

  9. Brian Knudsen Says:

    I wonder if happiness is one-dimensional? Not knowing anything about the field, this seems like a concept that could be teased apart into “multiple happinesses”. Kind of like multiple intelligences. I’m thinking about the results I saw somewhere showing that of all groups, evangelical Christians report the highest levels of happiness, and that stronger religious adherence generally correlated with more “happiness”. I wonder if this is a different dimension of happiness than that of creatives?

  10. Swordsman Says:

    Great thoughts, gang.

    Troy, I am happy you found a good place to be for you.

  11. Michael Wells Says:

    Its interesting how consistent most of these are. Oregon stays in about the same place. I didn’t look at a lot of states but Utah shines and West Virginia, Kentucky and Mississippi bring up the bottom on every index.

    I wonder if Brian’s information about Evangelicals would extend to Mormons and help explain Utah? Utah is also further along most of the indexes than I would have guessed. Don’t have any idea about the high well being in Wyoming. I’ve only been to the Tetons so can’t comment on the rest of the state.

    As I mentioned in Happy States Map 1, you can also see at least one map by congressional district which is much more detailed than by state. For example, it separates the rural and urban parts of the West Coast states and the creative class big city districts are happy, the rural districts aren’t.

  12. KIRSTI Says:

    My graduate students were recently discussing this research in line with our own discussions of ‘good work’ recently = as it is founded on some of the ideas of ‘flow’ from Csikszentmihalyi….. as a Colorado resident group we were discussing how it was that we could be ranked 49th in state funding for education but really high on these indexes and we chatted about the ‘mountain factor’. That is, we get the compensation of living in the mountains which makes up for the lack of hard cash in our hands….. that may also explain Utah…..I thought the graphs on super creatives and bohemians were really interesting though because then you got to see the influence of conservative values (see how far Co dropped then!!).

  13. Swordsman Says:

    Oh, boy, have I heard that canard before: you’ll accept less money because you live in a wonderful area. Yeah, funny how the people usually saying that are the people who would otherwise have to pay higher wages.

  14. Swordsman Says:

    It’s probably wayyyy too much data to try this, but looking at this by city instead of by state would be interesting. I bet Austin looks significantly different on these charts than Dallas, even though both are in Texas. Likewise, Buffalo vs. NYC, even though both are in New York.

  15. Michael Wells Says:


    Graphing it would be horrendous, but if you go to the post Happy States 1 and click on “map fun” it gives a lot of data by congressional district. Two general meta-categories, lifestyle questions and census data. Most urban areas are large enough to have a few congressional districts, so you can find metros if not cities.

    The advantage of congressional districts instead of cities is it lets you look at rural areas. For example check out 18 to 25 year olds and compare it to 25 to 44 year olds and you can just see prime child-bearing age people, also prime career age, abandoning the hinterlands.

  16. Swordsman Says:

    Michael, thank you. I’d looked at the well-being map, but didn’t see the 25-44 year olds map. Fascinating stuff.

  17. Michael Wells Says:


    Once you get to the congressional district maps there’s a pulldown menu that has not only the well being indicators but a lot of census data like age ranges, ethnicity, etc.

  18. Richard Florida Says:

    JWS – I tended and probably tend to agree with the school of happiness research you mention. But there is a very important paper by Justin Wolfers (who blogs at Freakonomics) and Betsy Stevenson which shows a great deal of evidence (including re-analyzing data series from a host of the seminal studies)that income is indeed associated with happiness.
    In fact, in his post, Will Wilkinson makes just this point about the state level data.

    Stevenson and Wolfers also have a paper on happiness inequality:

  19. Tom in BA Says:

    Gay states are happy states!

  20. SLC Resident Says:

    Utah has a very large gay population (probably due to the highest birthrate in the nation) and SLC metro not only has a large gay demographic but is also quite gay friendly. Oh, the dichotomies and contradictions of life in Mormondom!

  21. Mark Says:

    The correlation between money and happiness, and the issue of dropping out the lowest income levels (after which there is no good correlation) is consistent with very early work done by Hertzberg in his Motivation-Hygiene theory: essentially, money works only up to a point.

    But even more debunking of Florida’s Creative Class cheerleading: “a new study, Poverty In The Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community issued by the Williams Institute at UCLA, concludes that gay men and lesbians β€œat least as likely – and perhaps more likely – to experience poverty as are heterosexual people.” Among the reasons cited for the phenomenon: employment discrimination, lack of access to marriage, higher rates of being uninsured, and less family support. The study debunks the popular misconception that gays and lesbians represent an affluent, highly educated elite.”

    But, you know, whatever gets you lots of money and makes you happy, eh, Dr. Florida?