Congested States Are the Least Happy

December 19, 2009

You may have seen on the news a couple of nights ago a report of a study conducted by a group of scientists that ranked the states in terms of their happiness.  The fact that Louisiana ranked as the happiest state caught my attention, since it seemed to defy logic.  So when this article appeared (link provided above), I was curious to find out why.  As it turns out, the study was conducted pre-hurricane Katrina.

But as I read down the list, I began to wonder if population density might play a role.  So I decided to plot population density vs. the happiness index to see if there was any correlation.  Here’s the result:

Happiness Index

There’s not a strong correlation until you reach the bottom of the scale – the 12 least happy states.  At that point, there is a very strong correlation.  Of those bottom twelve states, only two have population densities below 200 people per square mile.  (And those two are Indiana and Michigan, states already hard-hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs even before this study was taken.) 

And, of the twelve states with population densities greater than 200 people per square mile, only one – Florida – ranked in the top twenty.  Delaware ranked 24th.  All the remainder were in the bottom twelve. 

Why?  Could this be an indication that the hard-to-define “optimum population density” I spoke of in Five Short Blasts occurs at some point before a density of 200 people per square mile is reached?  Is that the density at which over-crowding really begins to limit a person’s ability to consume and enjoy a high standard of living?  Is that where housing becomes so expensive that people are forced to buy and rent smaller dwellings than they’d like?  Are people who would love to have a yard and a garden forced to settle for apartments?  Is that the point at which roads become so congested and parking so scarce that it becomes too much of a hassle for some people to own a car?  It’s impossible to say, but it’s a good indicator – worthy of more study. 

This effect wasn’t lost on the researchers:

They were also surprised at the least happy states, such as New York and Connecticut, which landed at the bottom two spots on the list.

“We were struck by the states that come at the bottom, because a lot of them are on the East Coast, highly prosperous and industrialized,” Oswald said. “That’s another way of saying they have a lot of congestion, high house prices, bad air quality.”

He added, “Many people think these states would be marvelous places to live in. The problem is that if too many individuals think that way, they move into those states, and the resulting congestion and house prices make it a non-fulfilling prophecy.”

I’m reminded of the words of the Eagles’ song “The Last Resort”, a song that laments how the west, especially California, was ruined by over-crowding once word spread to the east that a paradise lay to the west:

… Who will provide the grand design?
What is yours and what is mine?
‘Cause there is no more new frontier
We have got to make it here

We satisfy our endless needs and
justify our bloody deeds,
in the name of destiny and the name of God

And you can see them there,
On Sunday morning
They stand up and sing about
what it’s like up there
They call it paradise
I don’t know why
You call someplace paradise,
kiss it goodbye