By some accounts, Seattle is among the most stressed and sleep-deprived metros in the nation, but let’s forget about that for a moment. New reports find Seattle, and Washington as a whole, rate high on the happiness scale.
In fact, Seattle is the seventh-happiest city in the nation, according to WalletHub’s 2022’s Happiest Cities in America report. The personal finance website last year found that the state of Washington was the 13th-happiest in the nation.
To determine where Americans were happiest, WalletHub compared 180 cities and all 50 states across several key indicators, including unemployment rates, job opportunities, the potential for income growth, divorce rates and sleep rates.
Seattle had the lowest unemployment rate, ranked second in income growth and first in the number of people who play sports.
The state’s happiness ranking was also based, in part, on the number of people who spend time volunteering for causes they believe in.
Milla Titova, a professor at the University of Washington who teaches courses on happiness, said there are a lot of reasons Seattle and Washington could fare well on lists like these.
“There are so many things going on in Seattle,” she said. “You have the Seattle Freeze, which is real and might go against happiness. We have gloom and we don’t see the sun for months and we know that’s not good for happiness.“
But people in Seattle and Washington are really into the outdoors, she said.
“A lot of people here are active and we know that working out and being outdoors is good for happiness,” she said.
Shep Salusky, a Seattle-based clinical psychologist who’s on the UW faculty and is a member of the Washington State Psychological Association, said he’s wary of these sorts of lists and finds them almost meaningless.
Studies such as these tend to rely on internet analytics and self reporting rather than rigorous and controlled scientific experiments, he said.
You could make the case that Seattle is a happy city because in comparison with much of the nation, we are relatively affluent and have a better social service safety net than many, he said.
But, he said, that’s really not a correct way to measure happiness.
Salusky said there’s literature going back 20 to 30 years indicating, among other things, that happiness is more than the absence of sadness.
“True happiness seems to come from being able to realistically assess your possibilities and what you can and can’t have and then going out and getting it,” he said.
People in less developed parts of the world often rate higher in happiness than people in the U.S. because they understand and accept what is possible, he said.
Lack of happiness occurs when people try to accomplish what simply isn’t possible.
He gives body image as an example.
“Let’s say someone is trying to meet a certain body image ideal, but they are going to be frustrated unless they are a model and that is going to work against their happiness,” Salusky said.
“If people can say, ‘I don’t care about the ideals or what is expected of me. This is what I want to do and this is what I can accomplish,’ they are going to be much happier.”
The challenge, he said, is to “make a realistic assessment and keep going back to that.” In addition, he advised using media, especially social media, for gathering information rather than assessing worth.
“Don’t compare to others. Ask yourself, ‘Do I have what I need? Do I have what I want?’ And use that as your measure,” he said.
Money can also factor into people’s happiness. Several landmark studies on the connection between money and happiness have shown that having enough money for what you need decreases stress and increases happiness, said Titova.
Increases in income significantly lower stressors for people who are not making much money, she said. However, once you reach a certain level of income, the relative return in happiness from each dollar goes down, she said. When people with incomes above $75,000 see their income increase, their small negative stressors remain unchanged, she said.
She said it’s possible to increase personal satisfaction, or happiness, at just about any income level with a few very simple — but not always easy — exercises.
One, practice gratitude.
“It may seem obvious but research shows it works,” she said.
Writing a shortlist of things that you’re grateful for, keeping a gratitude journal, writing a gratitude letter to someone who helped you — whether you send it or not, will unfailingly lift your spirits, she said.
Another certain way to increase a sense of well-being, Titova said, is to do something for others, an idea that may seem counterintuitive at first.
“Instead of concentrating on our own happiness, focus on the happiness of others,” she said. “Whether we volunteer, or do something for someone else — and it can be as simple as calling your mom if that makes her happy — our happiness goes up.”
“It’s kind of amazing and it works.”