Money may not buy happiness, but a new analysis of the happiest and unhappiest U.S. states suggests the lack of cash can contribute to a person’s misery.
“The thing about money and happiness is that being increasingly and increasingly wealthy doesn’t make you more and more happy, but experiencing poverty definitely can make you unhappy,” says Miriam Liss, professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
That’s because basic needs of shelter, food, clothing, safety, health care and transportation are hard to meet when people aren’t financially secure, she adds.
In order to assess levels of happiness in all 50 states, personal finance company WalletHub looked at three key factors: emotional and physical well-being, work environment, and community and environment. Utah, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota and New Jersey were the happiest states, according to WalletHub’s analysis.
Liss thinks it makes sense that Utah emerged as the happiest state, where about 60% of its population identify as Mormon.
“I’m not surprised by that, because I do think there is an association between religious affiliation and happiness,” Liss says. “And that’s largely because of the community and the connection that people experience if you feel nurtured and loved by your community.”
WalletHub identifies the unhappiest states as Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia.
“It’s not surprising to me. These are poor states,” Liss says. She adds that in order to be happy, a person must have a sense of autonomy, feel competent and have strong and meaningful relationships with others.
“You need enough money to be secure and able to meet both those basic human needs of housing and safety,” Liss says. “But also the psychological needs of the time to build relationships, the ability to engage in work that’s meaningful — and not what you hate just to pay the bills — and the ability to have some autonomy and flexibility over how you spend your day.”
The analysis found that only half of Americans feel “very satisfied” with their personal lives. Liss says there’s a genetic component to happiness that people can’t change, but that much of happiness – about 40 percent – is influenced by engaging in what she calls “intentional” activities.
“Really paying attention and enjoying when we eat, when we’re in a beautiful location, enhances mindfulness,” she says. “Practicing gratitude is a really powerful, intentional activity that has some really strong effects. … Community connection and kindness kind of go hand in hand, lots of volunteering, performing acts of service, getting involved in the community. Those are all things that can increase your happiness.”
Moving to one of the happiest states won’t automatically make you happy, she says, unless your most critical needs are met.
“Live somewhere where you can afford your lifestyle, because if you can’t, that really limits your autonomy,” Liss says. “You also want to live in a place where you have a meaningful job which allows you to feel competence and ability. … But I also think it’s really important to live somewhere where you can develop true and meaningful connections and relationships with other people.”