Utah Happiest State in Nation

Mormon HereticCulture, depression, Happiness, Mormon 32 Comments

Andrew Ainsworth did a post back in March wondering if Mormon Culture is Depressing Utahns?

If we can blame depression on Mormon Culture, apparently it is fair game to blame Mormon Culture for making Utah the Happiest State in the nation, according to this MSNBC article.  Let’s look at the Top 10:

Here are the top 10 states and their average well-being scores (out of a possible 100 points):

  1. Utah: 69.2
  2. Hawaii: 68.2
  3. Wyoming: 68
  4. Colorado: 67.3
  5. Minnesota: 67.3
  6. Maryland: 67.1
  7. Washington: 67.1
  8. Massachusetts: 67
  9. California: 67
  10. Arizona: 66.8

The article says that researchers reviewed “overall evaluation of their lives, emotional health, physical health, healthy behaviors (such as whether a person smokes or exercises), and job satisfaction.”

Other interesting quotes:  “New research suggests U.S. states with wealthier, better educated and more tolerant residents are also happier on average.”

Wait, Utah residents are wealthier, better educated, and more tolerant?  That seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, especially on the Bloggernacle.

Oh wait, let’s look at the wealth criteria again:  “the top three states, Utah, Hawaii and Wyoming are outliers, as they aren’t considered the wealthiest of the pack.”  Ok, apparently Utah is better educated and more tolerant.

How about tolerance?  “Diener points out that Utah is conservative, and research has suggested such right-leaning individuals are a bit happier than others. Hawaii’s ranking could be due to a relaxed culture, he said, adding that the three states may just have strong families and social relationships.”

Here’s another nugget from the article:

Of the personality factors, neuroticism took a toll on a state’s cheery count, suggesting people living in the happiest states are more relaxed than their gloomy counterparts. For instance, West Virginia, Mississippi and Kentucky were ranked as highly neurotic and showed lower well-being scores. Utah, on the other hand, had a significantly lower level of neuroticism than other states.

How is Utah the most depressed AND the happiest?

Comments 32

  1. Jen, funny comment!

    MH, I was just looking at a bunch of these exact statistics and also wondered the same thing. All I know is that I’m happier living outside of Utah so go figure.

  2. Post

    Jen, while I know you comment was meant in jest, I think there is some truth to the statement. In the article the researchers state:

    “Rentfrow noted, as wealthier individuals tend to be healthier, because they are better educated and thus more knowledgeable about healthy behaviors, and they also likely have health insurance.

    It seems like Utahns are more likely to seek professional help in treating depression instead of self-medicating with alcohol, which could explain why Utahn’s may take more prozac. Now I know Utahn’s are not more wealthy, but we do have an educated work force, and are probably more likely to seek mental health counseling than other states.

  3. I think it means you can find a statistic to support any idea you want to. Which is why I don’t take many of them all that seriously.

  4. “more likely to seek mental health counseling than other states”

    I wonder if that is true… if so, I need to move back there so I can make some $ someday!

  5. Utah has a sizable population who pray to the Father in the name of Christ, and strife to keep His commandments. Additionally, there are many temples.

    For those who have a proclivity to turn to the scriptures for information might remember the words of the Savior:

    Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

    (New Testament | John 14:27)

  6. Causation is the difficulty in this discussion. When the studies on anti-depressant use came out and Utah was three times New York and New Jersey and twice California the FAIR bretheren were quick to post there analysis on causation. Fortunately for them, there will be no need to post on why Mormons, uh, excuse me, Utahans are the happiest.

    As noted studies have shown that those leaning right in their political thinking are a bit happier in their beliefs. Conservatives are satisfied or wish to maintain the status quo (that is the definition of conservative. I’m actually surprised at how little political dialogue actually occurs on this site, except when it comes to gay marriage.) Liberals tend towards wanting to change the status quo, dare I say, are anxiously engaged in a good cause and therefore don’t need the anti-depressants as much as those who are turning inward.

    Rather than throw around self-congratulation about how John 14:27 is indicative of why Utah is the happiest state in the Union, maybe you should use John 14:27 to explain why Denmark is the happiest nation on the earth with only one Mormon temple and not the many members?

    Or answer the evil Salt Lake Tribune blogger on why our recent happiness can’t be attributed to undefeated football seaons for the U, Huntsman’s endorsement of civil unions — move over Mitt (John’s right behind you and he is in China), and Utah’s top subscriptions to porn sites.

    If this ends up being duplicated I’m sorry. I had links in the first post and that led to moderation issues —

  7. An interesting question. Not to be facetious but UT has a very high rate of youth suicide and I take it those individuals weren’t polled. Then there’s the high subscription rate to pornography. Perhaps it actually makes people happy rather than indicating a void in their lives to be filled. Likewise, all the plastic surgery may genuinely boost Utahns self-esteem rather than reflect some nagging doubts or dissatisfactions to be resolved superficially.

    UT is a very complex state and this survey is probably very, very flawed or very, very simplistic or both.

  8. I made this comment over on Dave’s A Soft Answer blog on this topic, but I’ll say it again here. Utah seems to be depressed when a Republican is in office, and seems to be happy when a Democrat is in office. 🙂

  9. The post is about why Utah is the happiest state, and the western states have an excellent showing in the top ten. I gave one reason why a study might have come up with the results they did. There must be a reason, I provided one possible explanation.

    I’m not an expert on depression medication, but from what I’ve learned from those who take meds for depression, and from what I’ve read, the reason for taking meds isn’t to make one “happy”.

  10. Alice,

    Yes, these 2 studies measure different things. Perhaps Utah has more depressed AND happier people, meaning we have fewer “neutral” people. That could be an explanation to explain both, rather than simply dismissing the study as “probably very, very flawed or very, very simplistic or both.” The researchers didn’t interview the depressed people in other states either, so I don’t think that is a valid criticism.

    Rather than look at depression prescriptions as Andrew’s article did, this survey measured different things: “overall evaluation of their lives, emotional health, physical health, healthy behaviors …, and job satisfaction.” These are different measurements so we shouldn’t write one or the other off as flawed, unless we can come up with a concrete reason why their flawed. The fact is they measure different things, so we shouldn’t be overly surprised that the outcomes are different.

    Jared, since you quoted scripture for happiness, you should also quote something for depression. Perhaps you could cite the sons of Mosiah: “Now when our hearts were depressed, and we were about to turn back, … the Lord comforted us, and said: … bear with patience thine afflictions, and I will give unto you success.” (Alma 26:27.)

    Perhaps it is missionary work causing depression? 🙂

    If you’re going to quote scripture to promote your cause, you need to do it when it doesn’t promote it too.

  11. Utah has always been a target for studies and statistics. Years ago the Trib would had, I recall, a weekly article that used stats to put Utah in a “bad light”. Of course, this reflected on the church. The Deseret News countered with their own stats that put Utah in a good light.

    I think after all is said and done, wherever there is a population of active Mormons, life is going to be good. I suppose this would be true wherever there is a population of those who seek to follow Christ, no matter what Christian brand they practice. The “fruits” of the LDS culture look good whenever there is a well thought out study. Let’s give credit where it is due.

  12. The comments on the Prozac, are right on!!! It is really how this survey was collected that shows the flaws. Once a person realizes what the survey is about, most Mormons will tie righteousness and happiness together. If it wasn’t for a church saying righteous people are happy and wicked people are unhappy we probably wouldn’t have this anomaly. I’m not trying to blame the church for this variation, but I would rather blame those on the survey team that obviously didn’t give much thought to the fact that certain groups of people will not tell the truth so they aren’t seen as wicked or unrighteous. You may think I’m wrong, but survey research has shown people will lie even if it is anonymous to give a false perception to those around them.

  13. byu agnostic, I can tell you have no training in statistics. please elaborate why these researchers from cambridge, england are getting people from utah to lie more than other states about job satisfaction.

  14. MH,

    The goal of the research team and their research question would have been revolved around the well-being of individuals. This isn’t easy to hide within the questions that they would have used while constructing their survey. I’m not sure you read what I wrote correctly or it is possible I did not communicate my true intention, I am saying that these researchers in trying to find out the perception of well-being across the United States were unable to anticipate that the religious identity in Utah among the Mormon culture, and the subsequent drawing a link between happiness and righteousness. Since a large proportion of the state (50%+-) will draw this conclusion because of teachings within the church, all random samples pulled through random selection will contain the same flaw. Probably the best way to reconstruct this survey without conducting this survey again and again would be to use existing data sets that have been collected but not necessarily revolving around the idea of well-being. I am suggesting that this study could not predict the microcosm that exists in Utah and that a different research method be used to determine perceptions of well-being in Utah.

    As for the statistics used in this study, I find it odd that the variance between #2 and #10 is only 1.4, but that the #1 is a full 1.0 ahead of #2. Maybe this is an outlier that wasn’t double checked.

  15. BYU agnostic, from my mission in the Southern US, I can tell you that Southern Baptists are probably more outwardly religious than Utah Mormons. You are correct in saying that researchers didn’t account for religiousness in their study. If they had, it would be interesting to see how Southern Baptists, and Roman Catholics in New England impact results.

    Some will tie Utah’s numbers to the Mormon church; certainly it plays a part, but until researchers specifically address religion’s role in depression and happiness, it is impossible to conclude that Utah’s religiousness is the most (or least) important factor in Utah’s depression or happiness indexes. (Of course, it makes for interesting speculation…..)

    I would be surprised if it was shown that researchers didn’t check for outliers–since they mentioned the top 3 as outliers for wealth. The MSNBC article doesn’t address variation, but I don’t think Utah would be considered an outlier for the overall index. Utah is very close to the pack, and I don’t think 1.4 index points is really that significant. I suspect that even though Utah was #1, it probably is not statistically significantly different from any of the top 10.

  16. First off, the first 9 states are not that different statistically. A few extra surveys in each state could have moved the ratings or simply calling a different set of pones numbers. One thing in common with all of the top 5 and that is location, all in the west. All of them are states that don’t have a lot of traffic and crime. They also are all strong on family and community ties. They also all are big into the outdoors for recreation. I think these factors have a larger role than perhaps religion. That being said, the top 4 all have strong LDS communities. The larger point is don’t take it too seriously. Any survey can make it say whatever they want, and besides, what does it matter?

    Prozac? While I can come up with many theories, there is less drinking and illegal drug use in Utah, this means when people get depressed etc. they are more likely to seek medical help.

  17. MH,

    I think you have some great points, we should put in for the grant money to redo the research taking in account religious identity and the practices within those communities. Of course that would assume I actually had time to work on something like that right now. I’ll have to look for the paper that will come out on the subject, hopefully it will cast additional light on what exactly they measured as denoting happiness.


    I recently saw an article saying that Utah had a larger proportion of people who had medical insurance. This would allow for more to seek professional help instead of self medicating through other means or drinking their way to happiness. I’ll keep an eye out on the sociological and psychological journals to see if this study is published, that might help us determine what exactly they were looking for to determine happiness and quality of life.

  18. Come to Utah, the happiest place on earth. Buy a huge house you can’t afford. Spend way more money than you make and max out all your credit cards trying to keep up with the Joneses. File for bankruptcy. And then take antidepressants to numb any feelings of guilt or self loathing you may have. It is the American dream.

  19. We have the highest use of anti-depressants.
    We are the “happiest” state.
    We have more LDS members than any other state
    We therefore likely have more “inactive” LDS members than any other state
    We use the most pornography per capita

    I could therefore plausibly make any of the following claims:
    1) Anti-depressants work and make you happy
    2) The LDS people in the survey are the “happy” ones and the inactive/non-LDS are the ones taking all of the anti-depressants
    3) The LDS people in the survey take all the anti-depressants and the inactive ones “finally” free of the oppression are happy
    4) We live in the West where people tend to be happy anyway
    5) Our pornography use is making us happy
    6) Our pornography use is making us depressed, so we take the most anti-depressants
    7) Being a member of the LDS Church makes you happy
    8) Being a member of the LDS Church makes you depressed
    9) Being non-LDS surrounded by members of the LDS Church makes you happy
    10) Being non-LDS surrounded by members of the LDS Church makes you depressed

    Or, most likely, everyone is grasping at straws here and trying to prove associations that don’t exist without better data

  20. I note that the study included non-smokingness (new word!) as a factor increasing the measure of a state’s “happiness.” (Not sure that’s a useful proxy; I know plenty of miserable non-smokers.) Utah’s extremely low smoking rate probably skews the cr…heck out of the curve. I suspect Utah would be quite a bit lower if that criterion were removed.

    “Conservatives are satisfied or wish to maintain the status quo (that is the definition of conservative.)”

    I think most American conservatives would rather define their ideology as not mere “defense of the status quo,” whatever it happens to be (would it be “conservative” to defend, say, the “status quo” in present-day California?), but rather a dedication to conserving certain Good Ideas introduced at the American founding.

  21. #23: Thomas:

    Our smoking rate is around 9-10%. California (due to society and law – and not religiously based), is only around 11% – and they are a much bigger state. Religion is not necessary for people not to smoke, and I don’t know that it really skews the results that much for Utah, per se. The West does tend to have lower smoking rates. If that is one of the criteria in the study, it could be due to that since so many western states ranked highly.

  22. Post

    Mike S in 22, that really made me laugh–it looks like you have all the bases covered!

    Thomas, the researchers weren’t looking only at smoking–they were looking at healthy habits, including exercise, avoiding excessive alcohol, obesity, etc. It’s funny that Nevada wasn’t in the top 10–apparently gambling doesn’t make one happy, despite Mormon’s penchant for sneaking across the border to bet on BYU. 🙂

  23. Did you guys see the article saying Utah is the second most healthy state? These two variables have been tied to each other in various studies. Hawaii is #4 for most healthy, so it definately is something that can change moods here.

  24. Maybe because all of those things may indicate happiness on paper, but they don’t always translate in real life. You can be healthy, wealthy, educated, etc and still be depressed. Depression isn’t alway situational. You can have everything in the world and still be depressed. Ie, money can’t buy happiness. Likewise, none of those other things can guarantee happiness either…

  25. I am often “depressed” by the wholesale misunderstanding that people have regarding depression, especially when it affects nearly 10% of the population by some accounts.

    Depression and other mental health issues are not based on external factors. No group of people (barring celestial intervention or some physiological cause in the environment) is going to be more or less depressed (statistically speaking) than another. I’m sure that’s oversimplifying and that there’s some correlation to stress or lifestyle (certainly “self-medicating” drugs exacerbate the problem), but a person with depression doesn’t choose it, not even inadvertently. It strikes the righteous as well as the heathen, just like heart disease and diabetes.

    If Utahns are marginally better or worse at managing depression (e.g. the health insurance and education comments) that may affect a survey such as this, but don’t for one minute conclude that a bunch of Utahns are depressed and taking prozac because their bishops are asking them to go home teaching twice a month or because they have to bake cookies for the neighbors.

    In short, interpreting a survey like this and speculating is all great fun but I’d like to take this opportunity to remind people that mental illness is not a laughing matter and is not induced by the environment. It’s a real problem for people from all walks of life.

  26. Here is a possible explanation: depression is effectively DIAGNOSED in Utah, so there appears to be a larger number of depressed people. At the same time, since they are diagnosed, they are more likely to receive treatment and therefore tend to be happier. Other states with lower apparent levels of depression just may have relatively poor psychiatric care, resulting in lower rates of diagnosis and treatment.

    Maybe Mormonism just makes you more likely to see your doctor to deal with your problems.

  27. the title is misleading.  According to the researchers research utah is the highest state for well being (not happiness) based on job satisfaction, emotional health, physical health, and healthy behaviors (doesn’t smoke or drink).  From the studies I have read this is true However people in Utah still report being unhappy despite having good jobs, good health, and good behaviors.  To find out which states are the happiest you don’t need a group of people taking a number of factors into consideration.  Just ask the people in each state how happy they are and compare the results with other states.  Its that simple.  You can still be miserable even with good health, a great job and  healthy behaviors.  If someone is happy they are happy even if they are overweight, smoke and don’t have a job.  

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