Happy States

According to data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control, the five happiest states in the nation are Louisiana, Hawaii, Florida, Tennessee, and Arizona. Analyzing the data in the December 17, 2009 issue of Science, Professors Andrew J. Oswald and Stephen Wu concluded that these states offer a higher level of "life satisfaction." This is scientist-talk for saying that people are happier in places with abundant sunshine, less congestion, and lower taxes and living costs. Those of us who reside in one of the aforementioned states know this to be true, but I believe that another factor plays a crucial role.

Except for Hawaii -- presumably blissful for its island breezes, yearlong flora, and an prevalent pineapples -- all of the top five happiness states are located in the South or desert Southwest. In fact, of the happiest fifteen states, all but Hawaii and Maine are traditionally "red" states. As for the bottom fifteen, all but Missouri and Nevada are located within the coastal blue-state culture. (As a border state, Missouri checked in at #37, not doggedly unhappy. As for Nevada, its happiness quotient has probably been diluted by the ongoing migration of Californians, as well as by the utter misery of having Harry Reid as its representative in the Senate.) Meanwhile, New York has the distinction of being the least happy state in the country, with Michigan and California not far behind.

Interestingly, the CDC data confirm one of the crucial insights of Frederick Jackson Turner in his classic work, The Frontier in American History (1920; rpt. Charleston, S.C.: n.d.). Writing in 1908, Turner reported that patterns of internal migration had created starkly different cultural characteristics in different regions of America. Turner stated that a spirit of "community colonization and control" (p. 103) -- what today might be termed communalism or collectivism -- originated with the settlement of New England and spread to the "northern plateau" of New York, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A very different culture of individualism dominated the southern colonies and advanced with the frontier throughout the Southern, Western, and lower Midwestern regions. "The spirit of individual colonization, resentful of control" (p. 103), characterized this vast heartland region.

I am sure that Professors Oswald and Wu have done a meticulous job of analyzing the data before them, but it may be that the science here has not fully understood the importance of liberty to human happiness. Short commutes, abundant sunshine, and beach access are nice enough, but they do not necessarily go to the heart of the matter. The fundamental reason why red-state populations are happier is that they are freer.

Happiness flourishes only in places where liberty abounds. The happy residents of Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee, and Arizona know that government regulation is the bane of their existence, and they resist it in every way possible. They treasure the freedom to build where they like, drive what they like, work where they like, and raise their kids as they like. It's no accident that all four happiness states are Right to Work states. They are also states in which a moral culture exists that values life.

Collectivism and control are the enemies of happiness. Turner recognized that the heartland, which lives by the opposite of the European-style culture that pervaded the Northeast, had given birth to a distinctively American culture. Turner's contemporary, Teddy Roosevelt, called the dynamic region between the Appalachians and the West Coast "the heart of true American sentiment" (Turner, p. 153), and he believed that as the region's population and influence grew, it would dominate American politics and culture. And so it has.

Following the 2010 census, as nine electoral votes are likely added to the South and Southwest with a similar loss of seats in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, this long-term emergence of a distinctive American culture will become all the more apparent. Given this increasing influence, the political ideology of Barack Obama and the entire Democratic leadership is clearly out of place. Americans do not wish to be "little Europeans," taking their marching orders from autocrats in Brussels and following the deeply insulated intellectuals of Paris and Berlin.

A culture of alienation, in fact, is surely one reason for the unhappiness that pervades coastal culture, and it is this culture that President Obama evokes with his overseas condemnation of America's supposed arrogance and guilt. The president's worldview is in perfect accord with the defeatism and gloom of coastal culture, and this is why Obama's reflexive response to every challenge has been to see it as a "catastrophe." The "catastrophe" of Iraq, the financial "catastrophe," the health care "catastrophe," the "catastrophe" of failed intelligence: For the political Left, all things are wretched until leftists themselves take charge and make them better.

As Kenneth Minogue pointed out, "misery, like happiness, is in part a learned response," and leftist ideology is nothing more than "an education in the miseries of the present" (Alien Powers, New York, 1985, p. 57). Fortunately, heartland America has not yet learned this lesson of negativism and defeatism. By and large, it has retained the optimistic, can-do attitude that has been the foundation of America's success in the past. This optimism is also part of why Americans in the heartland are happier than those elsewhere, and it is the opposite of the endless moaning and shifting of responsibility particular to President Obama and the American Left.

Taking responsibility includes taking fiscal responsibility, and even in hard times, conservatives have tried to live within their means and have insisted that their government do so as well. One consequence of this is that taxes in happy states are mostly low.

According to the Declaration of Independence, the "pursuit of happiness" is a sacred and basic right. Is it possible to pursue happiness when every aspect of life is controlled, regulated, and taxed to the hilt by a vast federal bureaucracy? Those who live in America's sad states already know what this feels like. For the resident of New York City, with its layers of federal, state, and local taxation and its endless regulations, the pursuit of happiness is restricted at every turn. 

Oswald and Wu suggest that New Yorkers are unhappy because of high taxes, government corruption, congestion, and a high cost of living -- all of which may be true. Even more important, I believe, is the longstanding existence of a culture of communalism and control. It is that kind of unhappiness that the political Left is attempting to force on those of us who still believe in liberty, and who, for the moment at least, are still happy.

Dr. Jeffrey Folks taught for thirty years in universities in Europe, America, and Japan. He has published many books and articles on American culture and politics.