I just finished reading yet another article about happiness. I run into this subject at least once a week, usually some report on navel-gazing and joy temperature-taking. In this case, it was about how my state — and the rest of the country — rate on the happiness meter, how the researchers measured such a squishy subject and why it matters.
Frankly, it depressed me. Not for a long time, of course, and not in a significant way, but it did make me moody enough to scream at my 16-year-old dog who is totally deaf, partially blind and slipping into senility faster than she can bark at a squirrel.
In any event, the piece cited the most recent state rankings by WalletHub, an online personal finance company, which used 31 different metrics, ranging from the amount of sleep residents get to commuting time and adult depression rate. Hawaii topped the list — no surprise there. That state, I am told, has impressive mountains and beautiful beaches, plus they prize Spam, a canned meat product that mainlanders scorn but that I happen to like. (This is in keeping with my poor nutritional choices.)
Utah came in second, which I couldn’t quite figure out, and West Virginia last, proving all our assumptions about a state that apparently ranks low in pretty much every category measured.
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But here’s the kicker: Florida, my beautiful home, only made it to 29. It ranked behind such states as South Dakota, Nebraska and Montana. Go figure. Another mystery was Iowa, at No. 8 and which I first experienced in minus 16 degree weather when we moved a son there on a frigid January.
“But it’s so cold in those places,” I protested aloud to no one in particular.
As a people, we Americans don’t do happiness well. The Scandinavian countries beat us handily every year on the U.N.’s World Happiness Report — and yes, there is such a study. In fact, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland consistently come in at the top, but so does Canada, our neighbor to the north. All these places are extremely cold, their winter days short, and alcohol consumption supposedly high, and yet the people there claim they are overjoyed with their station in life.
I’m flummoxed by these rankings, though I’ll admit that using this weird-sounding word makes me smile. And it happens every time, too, the smile. (Catawampus works, too, as does remolacha, the word for beets in Spanish.)
And it’s not like we in the U.S. aren’t obsessed by the business of happy-ing. For heaven’s sake, the pursuit of happiness even made it into our Constitution, proving how important the founding fathers considered such an endeavor.
Chasing this elusive feeling has inspired hundreds of books, not to mention thousands of articles. To wit: The most popular course at venerable Yale University is PSYC 157: Psychology and the Good Life. It tries to teach its students how to be happy. We also have the Secret Society of Happy People and a Happiness Happens Month, celebrated in August. The uber-successful sales of “The Happiness Project,” created by bestselling writer Gretchen Rubin, have inspired many to take steps in the right direction too.
After a few decades on this joy-and-heartbreak rollercoaster of life, I’ve learned that each of us makes our own happiness and that which brings us joy is as distinctive as a fingerprint. Still, I think certain common factors apply to all manner of happiness. I’ve discovered that gratitude tempered with ambition reminds me of how incredibly lucky I am, while also inspiring me to strive. Meaningful work is on my happy list too. Plus, good friends who make me laugh. And family to love.
But happiness is also about good health, a reasonable amount of financial security and knowing, beyond all doubt, that a bad day lasts only 24 hours, that a sad situation is temporary, and that we must experience some despondency to truly appreciate its opposite.