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June 24, 2017

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Americans are doing pretty well on the happiness meter

Conventional wisdom seems to be that this decade was a somewhat shoddy start to the millennium. We watched multiple unsustainable bubbles deflate before our eyes (tech stocks, home values, Tiger Woods). And, as many commentators have been eager to remind us, we close the year with higher debt, fewer jobs and deep political divisions.

Yet a glimmer of hope persists: We are, as a country, remarkably happy.

The recent AP-Gfk poll showed that 78 percent of Americans, when asked to "think about how things are going in your life in general," said they are very happy or somewhat happy.

Despite the deluge of depressing national data this year, one might reasonably ask: How should we measure ourselves, if not by our happiness?

Indeed, philosophers have grappled with this question since before there was a Christmas. Aristotle said: "Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence." Our founding fathers listed its pursuit as one of our inalienable rights.

More recently, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed that national well-being be measured alongside gross domestic product. And a growing academic field of behavioral and social science researchers have turned their attention to the age-old questions. What is happiness? What makes us happy? How do we know?

In the current issue of Science magazine, Andrew Oswald and Stephen Wu ranked states by the happiness of their residents, finding that people are happiest in Louisiana and least happy in New York.

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