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The search for happiness

A mentor of mine once told me, “Choose where you live, and then find your work.” His rationing was if you hate your job and where you live you’re doomed. If you hate your job, but at least like where you live, it’s bearable. Ideally, you love what you do and where you live. According to a new Gallup-Healthways poll released earlier this week, I made a good choice on my place to live. Boulder, Colorado was ranked the happiest place in the United States.

This doesn’t really surprise me, as what happiness according to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index really comes down to is: health and wealth. I saw this up close earlier this year as I traveled around the country interviewing people about what health and wellness means to them. These interviews were part of a research project NewHope360 took on called, The Future of Wellness: In-home conversations about what health and wellness means to American families. During this project, time and again participants linked their happiness to their health and financial status, as one participant put it: “I am finding more and more how inextricably linked health and wellness is to better financial health, friendships, having fun, getting ahead at work, and being happier.”

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index began in 2008 and is part of an overall 25-year study of U.S. resident’s health and well-being. For this project, researchers interview at least 1,000 adults every day and now, over the course of three years, they have already garnered more than a million responses. 

The Index ranks the data from highest to lowest in relation to health and well being in 188 metropolitan areas and focuses on 55 measurable aspects of overall well-being, which center around six sub-indices, including physical and emotional health, work environment, and basic access—do participants have basic access to food, shelter, healthcare, and a safe place to live. The line of questioning includes asking participants about their current life situation and then to anticipate what their life situation will be five years from now. Physical health questions evaluate such things as body mass index, disease history, physical pain, sick days, daily energy, and daily health experiences.

So why is Boulder so happy, or as CBS reporter Jim Axelrod says, “If happiness is a state of mind, then Boulder is its capital.” Its citizens are healthy and, for the most part, well off. Many things play into this. The sun shines close to 300 days a year in Boulder, which makes it really easy for people to get outside and to be active, regardless of their financial status. With an athletic population, Boulder has only a 13% rate of obesity. Colorado, which ranks 5th in the Index state rankings is the only state in the U.S. to have lower than a 20% obesity rate.  

On the money front, people often joke about the Trustefarian component of Boulder, or those residents who don’t really have to work.  Hit one of the many coffee shops in Boulder midday, and they’re all so busy you might wonder if anyone works (I both work and wonder what all these people do).  In 2010, the median household income in Boulder was roughly $55,000, while the area median household income for a family of three was at $80,700. The national median household income fell just below $50,000.  

But more than the statistics can show, Boulder is a community that values health and wellness. Here, you’re just as likely to find a naturopath doctor as a traditional doctor, along with every kind of alternative medicine and healing support possible, from massage and acupuncture (both disciplines have schools in Boulder) to homeopathy. Not to mention we seem to have integrative pharmacies and natural products food stores on every corner, from Whole Foods, to Sunflower and Sprouts, to the newly reopened Alfalfa’s Market, all of whom compete with the biweekly Farmer’s Market and umpteen CSA’s in the region. 

Boulder’s numbers are compared against Huntington, West Virginia, ranked the “unhappiest place,” in the country. The citizens of this former coal-mining town, struggle with unemployment and poor health. In particular, there are several pockets of severe poverty in and around the town. The median household income is just under $30,000.

But with a national obesity rate of nearly 34 percent and the rate of obese children in this country at 17 percent, it seems that Huntington may be closer to the norm, and Boulder the anomaly. And for this we will pay as a country. The U.S. healthcare costs significantly exceed that of other developed countries, both in per capita spending and as a part of the GDP, with healthcare expenditures accounting for 17.3% of the U.S. economy in 2009, or just under $2.5 trillion per year.

So how do we change the tide on health and happiness? Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project is full of ideas, from getting enough sleep, to asking for help, and eat better, eat less, exercise more. But ultimately what even her tips come down to is to give yourself permission to take one small step at a time to be healthier and happier in some aspect of your life. You don’t have to try to change your world overnight, but take steps. And that’s what we found with our Future of Wellness participants as well, as one participant who was recently diagnosed with diabetes and who had slowly over time lost more than 10 pounds said, “Had I known how good I would feel after losing this weight, I would have done it a lot sooner.” If all else fails, plan a visit to Boulder, Colorado, maybe we’ll rub off on you…then again, as we all know, happiness is a journey, not a destination. 

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