Thursday, July 24, 2014

Does Happiness Have a Cajun Drawl?

Are you happy?

Chances are, your happiness depends on where you live.

At least, that's what a Harvard professor and his colleagues claim.  They've analyzed some data from the Centers for Disease Control to chart, by city, the places where Americans are the happiest.

Generally speaking, according to this study, people who live in and around the San Francisco Bay area tend to be the least happy, along with people living around Seattle, Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, and from Boston all the way down to Washington, DC.  Alternatively, residents of Montana, Arizona, Texas, and the deep South tend to be the most happy.  Along with a pretty good chunk of Delaware.

Of course, happiness is a profoundly relative concept, isn't it?  "Happiness" is a mixture of contentment, satisfaction, ease, peace, and harmony, at least in proportion to what we know, expect, and experience.  Our happiness is also affected by our personality and our health.  And to a significant degree, we evaluate whether we should be happy by pegging ourselves against the people we consider to be our peers, or with whom we want to be associated.

Throughout all of this, our faith plays a core role in how we view our life, our circumstances, our relationships, our aspirations, and the things in which we place our trust and upon which we peg our chances for inner peace.  And we all have faith in something, whether it's in Jesus Christ, or Mohammad, or ourselves.

Not that this particular happiness study is trying to prove that geography is more important than anything else in how happy we are - or aren't - but it is an interesting snapshot of where we Americans tend to be the most content, and where life apparently is best lived.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the New York metropolitan region ranked dead last in terms of its happiness quotient.  It's the most densely populated region of the country, with some of America's highest taxes, housing costs, and insurance rates.  Normal daily work commutes can stretch into two hours one way, competition for employment is fierce, and political corruption is a way of life.  Sure, it's a spectacular place to visit, but even though they may live cosmopolitan lives there, few New Yorkers truly derive deep satisfaction in doing so.

On the other hand, it's surprising to learn that one state holds the top five metropolitan areas with the greatest proportions of happy people.  It's Louisiana, a state more often associated - especially by New Yorkers - with rural, backwater rednecks and a simplistic way of life.  Then again, consider the cable TV show Duck Dynasty, proudly filmed on location in Louisiana's infamous swamps.  The show's mantra is "happy, happy, happy," so maybe there's something to it.

And of these top five cities from Louisiana, not one of them is New Orleans.  The number one metro area is Lafayette, covering two parishes (or counties), with less than half a million people in the city and its suburbs.  The city's main attraction appears to be an exceptionally low unemployment rate of 3.3% in Lafayette proper, which by itself likely accounts for a significant amount of its residents' happiness.  It's a generally conservative place politically, and its economy is based mostly on blue-collar and service industries.

Lafayette does have a symphony orchestra, a regional airport, several colleges, and a couple of museums, but nothing prestigious enough for any of us to have ever heard of - unless we'd lived there before.

The other four cities from Louisiana that top this happiness list are all similarly unremarkable.  Unless, however, you consider how remarkable it is that such unglamorous, unexciting, unsophisticated, and relatively unknown cities can claim the top five spots for being full of so many happy people.

Of the top ten on this list, nine are Southern cities, with Nashville being the largest of the lot, and the most famous.  The one northern city is Rochester, Minnesota, which is home to the highly-regarded Mayo Clinic, as well as a major facility for IBM.  Minnesota is known for its brutal winters, so balmy weather obviously isn't a major priority for Rochesterites, most of whom must be pretty well-educated to work for employers like the Mayo Clinic and IBM.

And as far as big cities are concerned, Nashville has grown so much over the years, its traffic congestion can rival anybody's, and its Tennessee summers can be downright sweltering.  It is, of course, a dominant player in the music industry, but it's also got bragging rights as a prestigious college town, and it's home to Hospital Corporation of America, the largest operator of healthcare facilities in the world.

So what does all of this mean in terms of how legitimate "happiness" is?  We've got the "happy, happy, happy" bubbas down in Louisiana, and it would be easy for coastal sophisticates to write them off as a bunch of simpletons too swaddled by southern breezes and Cajun jambalaya to know how much better life can be beyond their mossy bayous.  But in stark contrast to Louisiana, Rochester and Nashville boast world-class corporate and cultural features with which the stereotypical bayou city can't compete.

Of course, the stereotypical Louisiana bubba likely wouldn't want to compete for jobs in Rochester and concert tickets in Nashville anyway.  Which probably helps explain why they're so happy.  If Duck Dynasty is any guide, they don't even mind being called "bubbas," either, since to many of them, being one is a point of pride, not derision.

Hey - they're not the ones commuting to jobs that stress them out and pay just enough to cover atrocious rents and income taxes.  Louisianans don't go to sleep every night to the lullaby of ambulance sirens and utility company jackhammers.  Not outside of New Orleans, anyway.  Nobody in Lafayette has to stuff themself into an aluminum tin can and rocket through underground subway tunnels with the smell of somebody else's urine turning their stomach.  If anybody in Louisiana wants to subject themself to an assault on their senses, they can visit New York City as a tourist, soak up the bedlam, and then return home, happy that they don't have to put up with that chaos on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, people from all over the world continue to stream onto Manhattan Island, and spill over into the boroughs, thinking that Gotham is where they can find true happiness.  Sexual happiness, economic happiness, artistic happiness, cultural happiness, political happiness... when all the while, where they probably should be going is likely more mundane than the hometowns they've left.

So, is true happiness found in the ordinary?  In the unexceptional, uncrowded, and inexpensive?  Do skyscrapers, an aging mass transit system, historic bridges, ultra-liberal politics, and 24/7 congestion result in happiness?  Or do the people who willingly subject themselves to such things their own worst enemy for figuring that's the price they pay for some sort of urbane significance?  Are they a lot of realists, and cynics, who compete with each other to be the best at whatever jobs they're doing, but who also know that onerous rents will only continue to rise until dangerous crime also rises - one of the city's more perverse balancing acts between boom and bust?

No, New Yorkers aren't very happy people.  It appears that most urbanites across the United States are not.  But they'd probably be even more miserable if they had to live in Louisiana.

Which likely makes Louisiana's bubbas even happier, knowing they won't have to share their idyll with all 'em obnoxious city slickers!

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