Are you living in the happiest (or unhappiest) state in America?

By John Murphy
Published October 2, 2020

Key Takeaways

What’s the happiest state in America? It’s Hawaii of course, according to a recent analysis by WalletHub. No surprise there. Who wouldn’t be happy in Hawaii? It’s got warm weather year-round, sunny beaches to lie on, palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze. Some would even say it’s a paradise. But guess what the second happiest state is?

It’s Utah.

Utah? OK, Utah may be a skier’s paradise, but it certainly doesn’t have warm sandy beaches or any of the other idyllic delights we associate with happy, laid-back Hawaii. So, what brings the people of Utah so much happiness? For that matter, what exactly is “happiness”?

What does it mean to be happy?

“Essentially, we have been debating what it means to be happy since before the time of Aristotle,” said Matthew J. Grawitch, PhD, director, Strategic Research, School for Professional Studies, Saint Louis University, commenting on the WalletHub study.

“The fact is, there is not one single recipe for what leads to a happy life. A lot depends on what people value, their general outlook on life, and what they find meaningful,” Dr. Grawitch explained. “Ultimately, an important element of happiness appears to be a sense of meaning coupled with general satisfaction with one’s life. However, what people find meaningful and how to appraise their life is going to vary tremendously.”

Still, he said, most people define happiness as one of these three things:

  • General satisfaction with one’s life

  • The desired outcome from the pursuit of some goal or set of goals

  • A positive emotional experience of pleasantness

Another expert who commented on the study—Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, professor emerita, Psychological and Brain Sciences, College of Natural Sciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst—put it this way:

“The key ingredients to a happy life are a sense of fulfillment, the ability to enjoy each moment, the feelings of connection to others, and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. It’s important to recognize, however, that there is a difference between feelings of happiness that might provide joy at the moment from that deeper sense of fulfillment.”

She explained: “You may be unhappy on any given day, but if you feel that your life has meaning, you can sustain yourself even through the toughest of times. The connection you have to others adds to that sense of fulfillment because relationships provide both emotional and social support. Finally, the ability to adapt allows you to cope with the inevitable changes that occur throughout life, no matter how challenging they may be.” 

“Tough” and “challenging” times—that’s an understatement for 2020. 

Happiness of community

What does any of this have to do with people being happy in Hawaii? Or in Utah, for that matter? It prompts the question: Does your location or environment shape your happiness?

“[L]iving in places that are safe, that promote being outdoors, with unpolluted air and water, access to healthy, palatable food, easy transportation options, and accessible healthcare makes it a lot easier to be happy,” said Julie K. Norem, PhD, Margaret Hamm Professor of Psychology, Wellesley College.

But physical and material surroundings aren’t the only part of this location question. “One of the strongest contributors to happiness, across all kinds of living conditions, is feeling part of/connected to your community,” Dr. Norem said. “So people who are active in, feel connected to, and are valued by their community tend to be happiest.”

Jared Caughron, PhD, associate professor of psychology, Radford University, said: “Does living in Hawaii tend to make you a happier person? I am sure there is some impact of nice weather and pretty views. However, if your perspective on life and how it should be lived is out of sync with the people in your community, you will struggle to find happiness.”

Turns out, it’s Utah’s close-knit sense of community that greatly contributes to happiness there. Notably, it was ranked number one in the Community & Environment category in the WalletHub study.

A quick note about the study’s methodology: To determine which states are the happiest, WalletHub evaluated each one across three key categories: Community & Environment, Emotional & Physical Well-Being, and Work Environment. (Utah also ranked number one in Work Environment and Hawaii ranked number two in Emotional & Physical Well-Being.) These three categories comprised 32 different metrics—such as leisure time, ideal weather, income rate, divorce rate, prevalence of depression, positive COVID-19 testing rate, etc.—each of which was graded on a 100-point scale. These scores were weighted and used to calculate an overall score for each state, which determined their happiness rank.

Are wealth and work keys to your happiness?

It’s no secret that wealth (including status) and, more importantly, work satisfaction are key drivers that attract and keep people in the medical profession. But, when it really comes down to it, exactly how meaningful are these to a person’s happiness?

“Money is not the key to happiness, as is shown in study after study in the psychology of well-being,” said Dr. Krauss Whitbourne. “More important than money is that sense of fulfillment or purpose. You need to feel that what you’re doing is worthwhile and consistent with your personal values and goals and that the people around you truly care about you (and you about them).”

Money serves to fulfill basic material needs—like adequate shelter and food—and without these people can be unhappy, Dr. Norem explained. But once a person has the income to obtain these material requirements (which is about $70,000 a year in America), the relationship between money and happiness becomes weaker or even non-existent, she said.

“Some research even suggests that after a person has achieved a certain degree of wealth, further increases in material resources can actually reduce happiness,” said Jeffrey M. Stanton, PhD, professor, School of Information Studies, Syracuse University.

For many people—perhaps those in the medical field especially—satisfaction from work is often an important means to happiness.

“Helping other people has been consistently shown to be an activity that increases people’s happiness,” Dr. Stanton said.

“If you are lucky enough to have a choice of places to work, choose the place that has a strongly positive and supportive culture, even if they pay somewhat less,” he added.

Now, without any further ado, here are the happiest and unhappiest states in America:

Top 10 happiest states in America

10. Connecticut

9. Idaho

8. Iowa

7. North Dakota

6. California

5. Maryland

4. New Jersey

3. Minnesota

2. Utah

1. Hawaii

The 10 least happy states in America

41. Oregon

42. Alaska

43. Alabama

44. Mississippi

45. Tennessee      

46. Kentucky

47. Louisiana

48. Oklahoma

49. Arkansas

50. West Virginia

Other notable findings

Highest volunteer rate: Utah

Lowest volunteer rate: Florida


Lowest prevalence of adult depression: New Jersey

Highest prevalence of adult depression: West Virginia


Lowest suicide rate: New Jersey and New York (tied)

Highest suicide rate: Wyoming


Fewest work hours: Utah

Most work hours: Alaska


Highest sports participation rate: Colorado

Lowest sports participation rate: Mississippi


Highest adequate-sleep rate: Minnesota

Lowest adequate-sleep rate: Hawaii


Lowest long-term unemployment rate: North Dakota

Highest long-term unemployment rate: New Mexico


Highest income growth: Oregon

Lowest income growth: Louisiana


Lowest divorce rate: Utah

Highest divorce rate: Nevada


Safest: Maine

Least safe: Mississippi

WalletHub has the full list of state rankings in its online report.

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