What does it mean to be happy? A good relationship? What about a full bank account and an after-work sports team? Achieving happiness is not always easy and not always expected, but in 2020 being happy can be harder than ever.

“Some years, it’s harder to be happy than others,” wrote WalletHub’s Adam McCann in an article about the country’s happiest states. “In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life as we know it, causing sickness, limiting social interactions, and leading to widespread job losses.”

WalletHub, a personal finance website, used 32 metrics to rate state-by-state happiness and drew on data from its own research to draw up 2020’s Happiest States in America. Their data sources included the Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So, what did they find? Hawaii, Utah, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Maryland are the happiest States, and Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and West Virginia rank last. Interestingly, Hawaii and New Jersey were also named among the healthiest states earlier this month, according to another survey. And the same states that ranked last in happiness were also last in well-being.

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To put things in perspective, WalletHub designed a rubric of 100 possible points, taking into account 32 metrics, across 3 categories:

  • Emotional and physical well-being
  • Work environment and community
  • Environment

Emotional and physical well-being involved data about physical health, depression, the amount of sleep people got, and if they played sports, among other things. Work environment took into account things like unemployment, work hours, commute, the average credit score, and the local economy. The last category looked at divorce rates, the weather, volunteering, safety, and leisure time. The highest possible score was 100, and Hawaii, the state that scored the highest, only achieved about 70 points. Remember, this is ranking the happiest states compared to other states, and it doesn’t mean everything is hunky-dory.

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As for COVID-19, WalletHub used data from a previous survey of statewide COVID-19 restrictions as well as data on the positive COVID-19 test rate in each state. An interesting tidbit: the pandemic didn't significantly alter the 2020 rankings as compared to the 2018 survey. Two years ago, folks in Hawaii, Utah, Minnesota, North Dakota and California were grinning the most, while the unhappiest people lived in West Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska and Oklahoma. For further proof regarding the pandemic's effect on happiness, Hawaii came in dead last for “States with the Fewest Coronavirus Restrictions.” So COVID-19 -imposed limitations do not mean people can’t be happy.

“The fact is, there is not one single recipe for what leads to a happy life. A lot depends on what people value, their general outlook on life, and what they find meaningful,” said Matthew Grawitch, PhD, “...what people find meaningful and how to appraise their life is going to vary tremendously.” Grawitch, a researcher at Saint Louis University, gave his comments as part of WalletHub’s report.

Happiness is variable. But, WalletHub found some interesting trends too. Minnesota, which ranked third overall, was in the top 5 for high volunteer rate and low divorce rates. It also ranked highly for safety.

So, should we all move to the top 10 states? Is that the cure for unhappiness? Probably not. Julie K. Norem, PhD, explained to WalletHub that, “...living in places that are safe, that promote being outdoors, with unpolluted air and water, access to healthy, palatable food, easy transportation options, and accessible health care makes it a lot easier to be happy.” But, another big part of being happy, Dr. Norem, said, is community, “[O]ne of the strongest contributors to happiness, across all kinds of living conditions, is feeling part of/connected to your community. So people who are active in, feel connected to, and are valued by their community tend to be happiest.”

So, if where you live has what you want, be it a metropolitan city, a rural area with beautiful outdoors, or a place with tight-knit neighbors and excellent schools, that might be the perfect recipe for your happiness.

Sabrina Emms is a science journalist. She got her start as an intern at a health and science podcast out of Philadelphia public radio. Before that she worked as a researcher, looking at the way bones are formed. When out of the lab and away from her computer, she's moonlighted as a pig vet's assistant and a bagel baker.