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Is happiness linked to quality-of-life factors like climate?

A new report finds a close match between individual happiness and objective quality-of-life measures such as climate, air quality, and schools. But others say happiness is more nearly tied to family, friends, and religion.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / December 17, 2009

A statue of the traditional Chinese god Happiness is seen as part of the Tianzi Hotel in the Yanjiao developing district on Tuesday in Beijing.

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“The Constitution only guarantees the American people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. Nearly half a century later Abraham Lincoln said, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

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Today, a report in the journal Science describes research carried out by the University of Warwick in Britain and Hamilton College in upstate New York that finds that internal happiness is more closely related to external conditions – such things as climate, air quality, and schools – than many have assumed.

“In a sample of one million Americans across 50 states, there is a close match between people’s subjective life-satisfaction scores and objectively-estimated quality of life,” the report concludes. Researchers found that states that are ranked highly in objective quality-of-life measures (Wyoming, South Dakota, and Arkansas) also have the highest average levels of self-reported satisfaction.

While some might wonder why a large, costly study is needed to show what sounds like common sense, key research experts say this is the first time that research has combined the two variables – objective and subjective – in ways that can aid public policy makers, real estate agents, community builders, and others in tangible ways.

“The new study ... is clear, simple, and potentially quite important,” says Robert Epstein, visiting scholar at the University of California at San Diego and former editor in chief of Psychology Today. ”They’re saying, quite correctly, that hundreds – maybe thousands – of studies evaluate people’s happiness simply by asking them how happy they are. Is that an accurate measure of happiness? Maybe people are just saying what researchers want to hear – or what they themselves want to be feeling.”

The study is valuable, Dr. Epstein says, because it uses a massive amount of data obtained from more than 1 million people in all 50 states to show that yes, generally speaking, self-reports of happiness are probably accurate.

“That might sound obvious, but sometimes studies like this turn up surprising results. This time, common sense – and the accuracy of self-reports – was confirmed,” says Epstein.

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