A Fascinating Map Of Where the Happiest People Live


You’ve heard of the Dow Jones, but have you heard of the Dow Jones Index of Happiness? Well, don’t beat yourself up about it, it’s new. Peter Dodds and Chris Danforth and their team in the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont Complex Systems Center partnered with the technology of Brian Tivnan, Matt McMahon and their team from the MITRE Corporation in order to produce an instrument that can measure happiness, called, simply, a Hedonometer.

The term, meaning “a device for measuring pleasure,” has been around since 1880, but the Hedonometer that we’re talking about only went live on April 30, 2013. Newer still is the May 29 report by the same team, headed by Lewis Mitchell, on the geography of happiness, entitled “The Geography of Happiness: Connecting Twitter sentiment and expression, demographics, and objective characteristics of place.”

But before we delve into the geography of happiness, let’s clear up just how it is that these researchers measure happiness in the first place. (If you already know all about the Dow Jones Index of Happiness and how it works, I would recommend skipping a few paragraphs.) 

Click on the photo for the full data on the map:

So, you ask, how exactly does this Hedonometer instrument measure the ever-ambiguous “happiness”? Answer: Twitter. Okay, it’s not quite that simple. According to the project’s website, Hedonometer.org coded 10,222 of the most frequently used words (based on the words used in Google Books, New York Times articles, musical lyrics, and tweets) on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 representing the saddest words and 9 representing the happiest.

The 15 happiest words, unsurprisingly, are (starting with the happiest): laughter, happiness, love, happy, laughed, laugh, laughing, excellent, laughs, joy, successful, win, rainbow, smile, won. The words “butterflies,” “chocolate,” “hugs,” and “cupcakes” also make the top 100.

The 15 saddest words are (starting with the saddest): terrorist, suicide, rape, terrorism, murder, death, cancer, killed, kill, died, tortured, raped, deaths, arrested, killing. Other words in the bottom 100 include: bomb, tumors, depression, and headache.

While most would not take issue with “laughter” being considered a happy word, millennials may question the ranking of others. I know a few college students who might wonder why the word “drunk” is considered one of the 1,000 saddest words.  

Regardless, now that all 10,222 words have a happiness ranking, Hedonometer.org takes a sampling of 10% of the tweets posted each day (10% = about 50 million tweets), and assigns each of the contained coded words (there are roughly 100 million of these coded words in 50 million tweets) a happiness score. After assembling the data from the 100 million words, they have the emotional temperature of that day (at least on Twitter).

The result is a colorful scatterplot (each day of the week has its own color) that vaguely resembles the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Fortunately for the economy but perhaps unfortunately for our well-being, the comparison stops there. As you know, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has largely trended upwards since March 2009, but the Dow Jones Index of Happiness, which begins with September 11, 2008, enjoyed a brief jump before declining slightly in mid 2011. It has stayed relatively constant since.

The five happiest days on Twitter since September 2008 have been the five December 25ths that have since occurred, and the next five have all been December 24ths. This should not come as a surprise, given that “Christmas” is the 32nd most happy coded word, and “merry” comes in at #162.

Also unsurprisingly, the other dots that tower above the rest of the plot are almost all holidays, including Thanksgiving, New Year’s, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and the Fourth of July. Valentine’s Day, perhaps slightly more surprisingly, has also routinely come out as one of the happiest days of the year.

The saddest days on Twitter since 2008 follow no such pattern. They are, in chronological order:

June 29, 2009 (the death of Michael Jackson), March 11, 2011 (the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami), May 2, 2011 (the death of Osama bin Laden), December 14, 2012 (the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting) and April 15, 2013 (the Boston Marathon bombings).

As of now, Hedonometer.org is graphing happiness based on tweets composed in English, but they say they have the capability and desire to expand to other languages and other data sources.

Now that we understand how Hedonometer.org claims to quantify the emotional temperature of large populations of people, let’s turn to the report they published on May 29th on the geography of happiness. Their aim in this paper was to “investigate how geographic place correlates with and potentially influences societal levels of happiness,” using the methodology described above. (Actually, the methodology is a bit more complicated, but unless you actually liked that statistics class you took in college, I’d recommend just sticking to the results I’m about to outline for you.)

According to average word happiness for geotagged tweets in all US states collected during the calendar year 2011 (figure 1, for those of you looking at the actual report), the happiest five states, in order, are: Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Utah, and Vermont. The saddest five states, starting with the saddest, are: Louisiana, Mississippi, Maryland, Delaware, and Georgia.

The report gets far more specific than that, however. It goes so far as to illustrate that in New York City, “the Harlem and Washington Heights areas to the north appear relatively sad compared to the Downtown/Midtown area, as does the Waterfront, New Jersey area west of the southern tip of Manhattan.”

The report also argues “that some coastal areas, particularly around the Florida peninsula and along the coast of North and South Carolina, are significantly happier than the regions immediately inland of them.”

Another central claim is that “happiness decreases with city size.”

Sweeping generalizations aside, what are the happiest cities in the US? Coming in at #1 is Napa, Calif., with a score of 6.25. (Coincidence that Napa is at the heart of American Wine Country? I think not.) Rounding out the top 15 are Longmont, Colo., San Clemente, Calif., Santa Fe, N.M., Santa Cruz, Calif., Green Bay, Wisc., Santa Rosa, Calif., Simi Valley, Calif., Lafayette, Colo., Asheville, N.C., Spokane, Wash., Boulder, Colo., Fort Collins, Colo., Santa Barbara, Calif., and San Jose, Calif.

No, you didn’t read that wrong. Seven of the fifteen happiest cities are in California and four are in Colorado. California is the thirteenth happiest state overall, while Colorado is the sixth.

The saddest city in the U.S. is Beaumont, Texas, with a score of 5.82 (which, I might point out, is not dramatically lower than Napa’s 6.25). Following Beaumont are Albany, Ga., Texas City, Texas, Shreveport, La., and Monroe, La.

“But what about cities I’ve actually heard of?” you ask. Well, the New York/Newark area came in at #119 of the 373 urban areas studied with a 6.05, the Boston area came in #201 with a score of 6.01, and the capital, Washington, D.C., ranked at a miserable #327, with a score of 5.92. And, following the whole West-Coast-is-the-best-coast trend we saw earlier, the Los Angeles/Long Beach/Anaheim area came in at #78, with a score of 6.07.

Additionally, the study found that there is a correlation between wealth and happiness, and an anti-correlation between obesity and happiness. Groundbreaking.

While the concept of a Hedonometer is fascinating, it is important to remember that this Dow Jones Index of Happiness, as of now, only measures the happiness of English-tweeting Twitter users, and Twitters users only represent 15% of all online adults. Furthermore, the percentage of 18-29 year-olds within this group is uncharacteristic of the general population. That being said, this methodology has a lot of potential, and will be even more interesting once it is expanded internationally and into other languages.

In fact, information gathered by the Hedonometer and similar technologies could actually prove quite relevant — for instance, the RAND corporation has already identified that increased profanity use in social media is a predictor of large-scale protests and social uprisings in Iran.

For now, however, cheers to Napa Valley.

You can follow Hedonometer on Twitter (@Hedonometer). You can also follow @GeographyOfHapp for the happiest and saddest US cities of the day, according to the Hedonometer. You can follow me @CrazyAnnetics.