Happy Texans

Are you happy? How happy? Happier than, say, the residents in New York or California? Worry no more about how much you worry, because I’ve got good news and some bad news. Texans rank 16th among the 50 states in the happiness quotient. You’ll never guess who ranks first. Our cousins to the east, the Louisianans. Last are New Yorkers.
Wouldn’t you think those best-and-worst rankings would be reversed? I mean, New Yorkers tell everyone else NYC is the greatest city in the world. Upstate is filled with happy-go-lucky fans who cheer on the hapless – if not happy-less – Buffalo Bills in some of the worst weather on Earth. Meanwhile, those Cajuns next door to us live in a state that ranks at or near the bottom among the 50 in most standard of living categories. It has one of the poorest populations, a high percentage of uninsured adults (Texas is the leader in that category), high rates of chronic diseases and a terrible shortage of doctors.
And why aren’t Texans at the top of the happy heap? Where else would anyone want to live? We’ve got Tex-Mex and barbeque, mountains and sandy beaches, the Aggie Band and Marfa lights. We’ve got mangos and bananas you can pick right off the tree. By all rights, Texans should be elated, delighted and, obviously, the happiest Americans.
These rankings are not based on any pop-quiz, but are from a scientific study on happiness by economists at the University of Warwick in England and Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and were released in the respectable magazine, Science. Researchers sifted through data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. They spent four years surveying 1.3 million people.
Then, to add to their data base, they discovered work by researchers at UCLA published in 2003 which considered objective and undisputed indicators for each state such as: precipitation; temperature; wind speed; sunshine; coastal land; inland water; public land; National Parks; hazardous waste sites; environmental greenness; commuting time; violent crime; air quality; student-teacher ratio; local taxes; local spending on education and highways; and cost of living.
What seems to make us unhappy are real causes, like the amount of coastline a state has or its student-teacher ratios. In other words, our happiness is based on hard statistics. While the researchers note that fellow scientists have always been reluctant to chart happiness, these new state rankings are in line with other studies. And the results show that the Pelican State has the happiest people. (Incidentally, the researchers note the survey was taken both before and after Katrina, but, “We have no explicit reason to think there is a problem” with the ranking.) Next in happiness come Hawaii, Florida, Tennessee and Arizona. Note that most of the top 10 are in the sun, although Montana (7) and Maine (10) made it, too.
Why does New York come in last and why is California not much better at 46? One of the study’s authors explained, “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.”
None of this explains why the residents of Mississippi (6) and even Wyoming (13) are happier than we are. I’ve never been to Wyoming and I’m sure it’s filled with – wait, “filled” is hardly the correct term for an area with a population smaller than that of El Paso or Fort Worth. Wyoming has 5.1 persons per square mile compared to Texas’s 79.6. The average adult Wyominger spends 17.8 minutes commuting to work. Texans spend 25.4 minutes. No doubt the Tundra State has some nice people there, but they clearly are also very nice to one another, because they are happier than Texans.
One factor in happiness, the researchers found, is health care. So how does Texas stack up? We rank 39th among the 50 states in overall health. Other Texas health rankings: 16th in cancer deaths; 22nd in prevalence of binge drinking; 26 in prevalence of smoking; 44th in rate of infectious disease cases; 43rd in public health dollars per person, and we’re Number 1 among the states in the percentage of medically uninsured – 27 percent. It’s hard to be happy when you’re uninsured and waiting in the ER.
Obviously, our happiness depends on our quality of life, so here are other facts and factors which might explain why Texans are not especially happy. Laredo has a 47 percent literacy rate, the lowest of all American cities. Forbes magazine has rated the Texas Longhorns as the most valuable football team in college sports, worth $119 million, which is $11 million more than second place Notre Dame. It’s all a matter of our priorities.
Now, about the good-news, bad news. Remember those researchers explaining why New York and California have the least happy residents? The researchers figured those two states were suppose to be so nice that everyone else wanted to move there, causing congestion, less green space, more pollution and higher taxes. This brings us to Texas. Actually, this brings a lot of people to Texas. The not-so-Lonely Star State is facing the same situation, i.e, it is attracting a lot of people seeking the very lifestyle their swelling numbers might destroy. Indeed, our biggest problem is that everyone else wants to move here, from all directions, especially from south of the Rio.
Well, the US Census has just announced that Texas has added more new residents – 478,000 – than any other state. In the 12 months ending July 1, it was as though every man, woman and child in Fresno, Calif., moved to Texas, and sometimes I think they have. There are now almost 25 million Texans (24.8 million to be precise). It appears our state of happiness is slipping as we become a non-fulfilling prophecy. Pull up the gangplank!
Ashby is happy – ashby2@comcast.net

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