The Geography of Happiness (and Unhappiness)

Jul 31, 2017

It’s no secret that there are deep social and political divides in the U.S. What’s less clear, is what is driving the polarization.

Carol Graham has spent the past decade studying quality of life and happiness around the globe. She’s the Leo Pasvolsky Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and College Park Professor at University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.

In the past few years, she’s turned her attention to inequalities in happiness and hope here in the United States. And she has just released three maps of worry, pain, and optimism in each state.

She calls it the Geography of Desperation.

“We wanted to measure optimism about the future -- how do you think your life will be -- and we wanted to get a sense of people’s daily lives,” said Graham.

Stress and worry are not only markers of unhappiness, but they also track with ill health, she said. Pain is correlated with opioid use.

“We find that the [higher] mortality rates are very much associated with places in general where hope levels, or optimism levels are much lower. There is also an association with places where stress and worry are higher.”

So, does more money mean more happiness? Sort of.

“Having sufficient means…matters to well-being,” Graham said.

Having enough money to pay the bills means you are more likely to be happy, she explained, but the people with the most money are not necessarily the happiest.

“More money doesn’t make you smile more,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily make you enjoy your time with your friends more, and it doesn’t make you more optimistic for the future, either.”