What would make an entire group of people — an entire state, even — collectively unhappy? Conversely, what could be done individually to reverse this trend, and to find contentment and peace in an environment characterized by discontent and angst? I set out to answer these trivial questions yesterday after reading a report that listed my adopted state as the second-least happy state in the nation.
Enid, Okla. — A study released Monday by the financial analysis firm WalletHub ranked Oklahoma as the second-least happy state in the nation.
The WalletHub study examined 28 metrics linked by various studies to happiness, grouped in emotional and physical well-being; work environment; and community and environment. The findings placed Oklahoma in 49th place in the nation for happiness measures, followed only by West Virginia.
The top five, or most happy, states in the nation were Minnesota, Utah, Hawaii, California and Nebraska, according to the study.
Rounding out the bottom five along with Oklahoma and West Virginia are Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana.
Oklahoma ranked in the bottom five results for six out of the study’s 28 metrics, including: sports and leisure participation, 48; share of adults feeling active and productive, 49; life expectancy, 46; job security, 48; economic confidence, 48; and safety, 48.
Oklahoma ranked in the top five for two categories, coming in fourth place in income growth rate and public perception of the weather, and also was in the top 10 for unemployment and underemployment.
Local sources who teach and work in psychology said they’re not surprised by Oklahoma’s low ranking in the study.
“Unfortunately, we rank pretty high in a lot of factors that correlate to reduced happiness,” said Wayne McMillin, dean and professor of psychology at Northwestern Oklahoma State University-Enid.
McMillin said societal issues prevalent in Oklahoma such as teen pregnancy, drug use and childhood hunger all combine to “impact our overall cultural feeling of happiness.”
Collective feelings of happiness or unhappiness also are affected by our priorities, McMillin said.
He starts each psychology class by having his students think about what they enjoy, and what gives them fulfillment in their life.
“Everyone has in their own mind the things they enjoy, the things that give them peace and that they find fulfilling,” McMillin said. “I ask each of them to think about those things, and then ask themselves ‘What am I missing?'”
McMillin said the source of happiness is different for different people, but it’s usually not a secret. It’s just a matter of making it a priority.
“If I value quality time with my family, or satisfaction with my work, and those things are missing, then I need to emphasize those things in my life,” McMillin said. “We generally know what we want. But are we doing the things we need to get there? That’s the big question.”
NWOSU-Enid psychology instructor Taylor Randolph said people often think of money and possessions as the goal that will result in happiness.
But, he said, “money certainly does not buy happiness.”
He cited a Princeton University study that found increases in income beyond $75,000 did not lead to increased happiness, and Chinese studies that indicate as that country’s population has begun to consume more, collective happiness has declined.
Randolph said more often than not, what people want but do not focus on is quality in their personal relationships.
He pointed to a 32-year study that consistently found that satisfaction in marriage was an “extremely strong predictor of being happy with one’s life overall.”
Given Oklahoma’s consistent top-five ranking for divorce rates in the nation, Randolph said there likely is a correlation between Oklahomans’ “overwhelmingly unsuccessful rates of marriage” and the state’s low happiness rankings.
Whether it’s in marriage or friendship, Randolph said close and genuine social connections are a strong indicator of personal happiness.
“People who have regular, meaningful interactions with friends and significant others tend to have higher levels of happiness,” he said. Conversely, Randolph said, “Social isolation is a strong predictor of depression and even suicide.”
“Take time to reach out, volunteer, get involved with a bigger cause,” he said. “Folks that do these things tend to have a higher quality of life.”
Randolph said Oklahoma’s poor rankings for physical health, exercise and obesity also figure directly into lower rates of happiness in the population.
“We are largely obese and sedentary,” he said. “Making time to exercise regularly and engage in healthy recreational activities is tied to increases in serotonin levels in our brains, the neurotransmitter (brain chemical) most responsible for providing feelings of happiness.”
Randolph offered some simple steps people can take to find greater balance and happiness in their lives.
“If I were recommending how to be happy, it would be to set fewer goals related to income or getting a bigger house, and to take more time to be with your family,” he said. “Make time to exercise, to be a part of a group bigger than just yourself, eat healthy, make sure you sleep. Being a part of a religious or spiritually-active community may help to establish lasting bonds.”