America’s Happiest (and Most Miserable) States

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Fajada Butte in Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Source: Thinkstock

21. New Mexico
> Poverty rate: 20.4% (2nd highest)
> Unemployment rate: 6.6% (3rd highest)
> Obesity rate: 28.8% (19th lowest)
> Pct. of adults w/ bachelor’s degree: 26.5% (13th lowest)

Few factors have a greater influence on future well-being than education. In New Mexico, only 84.6% of adults have completed high school, the fifth smallest share of any state in the country. Despite poor educational attainment rates, New Mexico residents report healthy behaviors and other elements of high well-being. Adults in the state are more likely to be physically active than the typical American adult. The state’s 28.8% obesity rate is slightly lower than the 29.8% national rate. In addition, only 13.8% of adults in New Mexico report excessive drinking, one of the smallest shares of any state and well below the 17.7% of adults who do nationwide.

Richmond, Virginia, USA Skyline
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22. Virginia
> Poverty rate: 11.2% (11th lowest)
> Unemployment rate: 4.4% (17th lowest)
> Obesity rate: 29.2% (22nd lowest)
> Pct. of adults w/ bachelor’s degree: 37.0% (6th highest)

Of the five elements of well-being assessed by Gallup — sense of purpose, social life, financial health, strength of community, and physical fitness — residents of Virginia were most satisfied with their social and financial health. While money does not necessarily lead to happiness, income above a certain level is necessary to ensure financial stability. An estimated 29.2% of Virginia households earn $75,000 or more, the fifth largest share of any state. While avoiding challenges associated with low incomes, wealthier individuals are often at greater risk of work-related stress. Virginians, however, report relatively low amounts of stress as a whole. Roughly 10% of Virginia adults experience regular mental distress, a smaller share than in most states.

Port Newark, Petroleum, New Jersey
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23. New Jersey
> Poverty rate: 10.8% (8th lowest)
> Unemployment rate: 5.6% (18th highest)
> Obesity rate: 25.6% (10th lowest)
> Pct. of adults w/ bachelor’s degree: 37.6% (5th highest)

New Jersey residents report strong social ties compared to other states, which could also account for high income levels in the state. The typical New Jersey household earns $72,222 a year, the fourth highest median household income in the country. High household income may be partially due to the large share of married, two-income families in New Jersey, which at 51.2% is the sixth largest share of all states. On the other hand, goods and services in New Jersey cost 15% more on average than they do across the country, which adds financial strain on some state residents. On the Gallup well-being survey, New Jersey had nearly the highest social well-being rank, but fairly average financial health.

Cannon Beach, Oregon
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24. Oregon
> Poverty rate: 15.4% (17th highest)
> Unemployment rate: 5.7% (15th highest)
> Obesity rate: 30.1% (22nd highest)
> Pct. of adults w/ bachelor’s degree: 32.2% (15th highest)

Oregon residents are more likely to be in poor physical and mental health than most Americans. Adults in the state report an average of 4.5 poor mental health days and 4.5 poor physical health days a month, each among the most of any state. Poor mental and physical health among residents could be attributable to some bad habits. Some 18.8% of adults regularly drink excessively, larger than the 17.7% national share.

In other measures, however, people in Oregon are more likely to have healthier habits than most Americans. A physically active population, only 18.8% of adults in Oregon lead totally sedentary lives, the second smallest share of any state in the country.

Seattle, Washington
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25. Washington
> Poverty rate: 12.2% (17th lowest)
> Unemployment rate: 5.7% (15th highest)
> Obesity rate: 26.4% (14th lowest)
> Pct. of adults w/ bachelor’s degree: 34.2% (11th highest)

Despite relatively high incomes and favorable economic conditions, self-evaluations across other metrics of well-being among Washington residents rank in the middle of all states. The typical household in the state earns $64,129 annually, well above the national median.

Several measures of health in Washington are just in line with the nation. Some 17.8% of adults in the state drink excessively compared to 17.7% of adults nationwide. Additionally, there are 13.8 drug overdose deaths a year in the state for every 100,000 residents, roughly in line with the national figure of 14.0 deaths per 100,000.