By Lauren F. Friedman, published on November 5, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
What drives population growth in a certain region? Why do people flee one city and flock to another? Quality of life and economic factors certainly play a role, but a new study by psychologist Richard Lucas in Social Psychological and Personality Science finds that the strongest predictor of a rising population may be the self-reported well-being of an area's residents. Data collected from more than 2 million participants over a 10-year period show that regions where people reported the greatest life satisfaction had population growth 14 times that of the least satisfied regions. Below, a closer look at the geography of happiness. —Lauren F. Friedman
In a classic study of how we perceive the happiness of others, David Schkade and Daniel Kahneman found that students in the Midwest and California reported similar levels of life satisfaction—although all guessed that the West Coasters were the happier ones. Why? The psychologists noted that widely known factors—like differences in weather and cultural richness—seem to matter more from afar than they do in people's daily lives.
Previous analyses have shown that individual variables, such as health, contribute to satisfaction. But in a study with Nicole M. Lawless, Lucas went further and found that community variables matter, too: Low population density is associated with higher life satisfaction. Indeed, some counties in sparsely inhabited North Dakota show sky-high levels of well-being, and the state has the highest rate of population growth in the country.
An earlier study published in Science rated Louisiana, a state lacking objective perks like wealth and temperate weather, as the happiest. Predictably, there have been questions about whether the slight differences in happiness at the state or county level are significant. But Lucas found that life satisfaction is a better predictor of population growth than unemployment rate or average income, suggesting these differences do matter, small though they may be.
One of the happiest places in the nation is Cape Cod, an area full of beach towns with the gay mecca of Province-town at its tip. A recent study of Twitter posts found that outdoor- recreation words, such as beach, ocean, sailing, swim, and ship, were correlated with greater well-being; earlier research has found measures of inclusiveness—such as the concentration of gay households—also strongly predict life satisfaction.