2023's Happiest States in America

Ask the Experts

Happiness is more than a feeling of joy or excitement. It relies on various aspects of a person’s life — from emotional well-being to job satisfaction. To expand the discussion, we asked a panel of experts to share their advice and insight on achieving overall happiness and career contentment. Click on the experts’ profiles to read their bios and responses to the following key questions:

  1. What are the key ingredients to a happy life?
  2. How important is money to people’s happiness?
  3. What are the secrets to career contentment?
  4. How much does where you live influence your happiness?
  5. What are some steps a person can take to ensure a state of psychological well-being

Sharon Sassler

Professor, Director of Undergraduate Studies, The Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, Department of Sociology – Cornell University

As I am teaching a family policy class, I wanted to bring your questions to my students to see what they had to say. Two of my students actually led a discussion on this topic the previous week, as they were tasked with reading the David Brooks NY Times article, "To Be Happy, Marriage Matters More than Career. I thought I would use that to weigh in on the answer to your first question, as I am a sociologist, not a psychologist, so I am more interested in how groups work with and resist social norms regarding what are deemed desirable goodies in life.

In response to what they wanted in three domains of their lives (family, career, and other), students in my Evolving Families class wrote what they wanted on sticky notes and then (anonymously) put them on a board with spaces for each domain. For family, they noted that they aspired to strong friendships, attachments of some sort to a community (they mentioned volunteering, extended family such as grandparents and aunts, uncles, and cousins), and intimate relationships. No one actually wrote down a desire to be married, but after class, students trickled into office hours and mentioned that they had forgotten to write that, but of course, that was what they had in mind, that it was something their parents emphasized as a goal, but it seemed so much of a given that it went unmentioned. Of note is that none of them mentioned that cohabitation was a goal, though they know I researched the topic. In interviews I have done with somewhat older respondents (recent college graduates three to five years out), most do mention marriage. So perhaps David Brooks is not ascertaining what is going on in young people’s minds when he talks with them. Marriage seems so distant that even young women who really want large, close families rarely mention it in my classes unless they are referencing friends from high school who went to more traditional colleges and are getting married. I would not conclude, as Brooks does, that today’s young people do not value marriage. But at the moment, they are more concerned about the work world; it feels like something they have been taught they need to focus on for their entire lives, and if a presumed marriage in the future is a given, career success is not (in their eyes). It is marked with uncertainty.

Which takes us to the next bucket: career. Students in my Evolving Families class wrote about wanting to have a fulfilling career, something that they felt had value. They want to do good AND do well—so, to do meaningful work but also not be poor by choosing a particular career (college debt concerns some of them). There are seniors in the class who already have jobs lined up as consultants and juniors who want to go into health care advising, government, and real estate; others are contemplating going to law school. When I ask freshmen in a much larger class what they value in jobs, in a large class of about 100 students, these students are far more likely to assign "money" as the thing they value #2 (I think they may be embarrassed to put it as their top priority—that would not be seemly!). Many have grown up in well-off families, enjoy their lifestyles, and want to replicate that. Of note is that it is a selective group of students who choose to take my small Family Policy class, and among our majors, there are far more interested in banking and finance (who generally do not take the family policy class, though those interested in consulting do).

Students often describe wanting to be "passionate" about their work, something that sociologists point out can be something of a trap, especially for those from less advantaged backgrounds, who might then take out large loans for degrees in fields that, while rewarding, will never pay very much. And that is how we often sell majors. While I, too, think one wants to enjoy many aspects of one’s career, a more realistic view would hold that not everything about one’s job will be satisfying, exciting, or rewarding. Young people do not yet have that perspective. Students also seem to be rather clueless about how difficult it is to maintain the hours that many of the careers they mention want their workers to put in. One student came into my office to talk about her interest in a law degree. I asked her if she had friends who were paralegals, and she did, she said that these friends told her that they worked really long hours, that their jobs were stressful, and that they had to hyperfocus on small details, so they did not really like them. When I asked her about what the lawyers she worked with (who were all very kind) did, she said they encouraged her to have a good work-life balance and that they worked only about 60 hours a week, but she was not aware that that meant very long days that could get in the way of a balanced life. I hear this a lot from college students. They are worried about how long their work days will be. But they do not feel as if they are in a position of power where they can work fewer hours. Those who do not want to work that many hours can then select out of those kinds of jobs. But those who think that this generation is going to alter the workplace fail to acknowledge that this group only has the power of refusal; they may refuse to work that many hours (and lose their jobs), but they do not have a lot of bargaining power to change the number of hours expected.

What of the "other" category? Students wanted friends, pets (one student wrote "chihuahua"), and volunteer work. They did not want the binary that they felt Brooks would impose: either family or work. They want both. But they are unsure how they will get there. At Cornell, many feel like 60- to 80-hour work weeks are the expected norm and do not question what gets done on those very long days (or what they have to pay other people to do—laundry, cooking). Brooks would have the students reject these dichotomies, but again, the students are not the ones in the power seats! So, they worry.

What are the key ingredients to a happy life?

From my perspective as a sociologist (not a psychologist), the key ingredients to a happy life are having a sense of meaning, a community with whom one can share that sense of purpose (whether that be family members, fellow members of a religious community, or fellow professionals in a work setting, such as my faculty colleagues in my school or discipline), a chance to grow and learn and experience new challenges (mastering new things should be a life-long endeavor, not one limited to school-aged people), and adequate resources (earnings or wealth) to enable one to live without worrying about an emergency. Emergencies may present challenges and provide growth opportunities—overcoming a spouse’s health challenges is a way to grow together—but not too many challenges. For many, living in a place with abundant nature or access to those resources (green spaces, trees, the opportunity to see animals, and green things) also adds greatly to life satisfaction. For some, art and culture might matter more—music or literature to mark aspects of life.

And from a personal perspective, I think one key ingredient to a happy life is being around young people. Whether pre-school-aged children, with their curiosity and potential, elementary and middle school kids who are like sponges or my college students, filled with potential, being around young people helps draw one out of oneself and provides a sense of possible futures that go beyond the individual.

How important is money to people’s happiness?

When one does not have money, it becomes very important! Numerous studies about the association between money and happiness show that having enough to provide the necessities of life (and a bit more) is the sweet spot for happiness, but that the association is not linear. Having more and more money does not guarantee happiness. If we look at the countries that score highest in terms of happiness, they are not characterized by the highest wealth levels but by more universal access to things that challenge happiness: they have universal health care, generous family support, and enable the pursuit of higher education without massive levels of debt. They enable more people to live solid middle-class lives rather than allowing a few lucky people to live very well off the hog. I wish we thought more about money from a societal level—how to spread the greatest good to more people—than focused on individual wealth and happiness. But residents of Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway are happier (and more satisfied with their governments!) than residents of the U.S.

So perhaps we need to reframe that question to be less about money and more about benefits. Paid family leave, more support for care workers, universal or national health care, and opportunities to pursue higher education that are less costly than our privatized current approach would make for a more satisfied population, and they would feel happier with their lot in life.

What are the secrets to career contentment?

Low expectations? But seriously, it depends upon what you value—money, creativity, responsibility, change, interaction—the list goes on and on. Given that Americans work for several decades, it seems that selecting a "career" that allows for continued learning and growth would work for those of us who value that (like academics!), whereas not everyone would appreciate the need to retool or upgrade skills. I do not think there is one path to career contentment, especially as the workplace has changed so rapidly in the last few years. I do think those who are most content in their careers recognize when something is growing stale and make a change, and then they get defined as successful. However, not everyone is in a position to make a change or learn to value other aspects of a job that have become less rewarding, such as mentoring others or having long-term relationships with colleagues.

Do the majority of Americans even have careers? And are young people going to, if they think they will change repeatedly? Perhaps the secret to career contentment is to be flexible about what careers can provide over time. Should one always be content in one’s career? That might preclude growth – which often takes a bit of discomfort. No answers here – I think there is a need to better understand how men and women may view career contentment differently, how that varies by race-ethnicity, and over the life course, as well as by occupations. I can only imagine that at the end of their career a Physician would feel quite different than I would as an academic, or someone might feel as a social worker or engineer.

How much does where you live influence your happiness?

As Uri Bronfenbrenner would say, ecology matters! Where one lives—one's country, state, neighborhood, or community—can matter greatly in shaping one's access to resources that help determine one’s life. Living in a state that ensures reproductive access, for example, means that women are better able to control whether and when they have children, invest in education or careers, or form relationships, which allows them to invest in things like careers or children later in life that can shape their happiness. Living in a country that acknowledges that society benefits from children and that families often need assistance with providing for children in their most resource-intensive years can greatly shape happiness (and stress!)! Countries with policies that do more than just talk about how they value children but show it through their policies have much higher levels of reported happiness than the U.S., where we talk incessantly about family values but privatize everything so that only those with the greatest means can access quality opportunities.

But while place matters, economists overstate our ability to move at the drop of a hat. Many people are embedded in a network of relationships—they have parents, partners, or children—and cannot move to a state to improve their happiness.

Read the full article on WalletHub

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