Opinion: Metrics may tag Tennessee as an unhappy state, but we don't have to be unhappy in it

Staff Photo By Matt Hamilton / Fans cheer as Briston Maroney performs on the Iris Stage on the first day of the Moon River music festival earlier this month at Coolidge Park.

The list makers have again judged Tennessee to be one of the 10 least happy states in the country.

In WalletHub's annual ranking of the happiest states, just out, the financial services website listed us 43rd. And we have escaped the bottom quintile of states only a couple of times in the last 10 years.

We're unhappy about that, darn it.

Other listings over the past 10 years haven't been much kinder. Tennessee has hovered at the higher (better) end of the bottom 10 of states. One happiness-type survey, the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index, had us all the way up to 29th in 2017 and 38th in 2016. But those years were rare.

So, is it something we said? Something we did?

We'll admit to being suckers for these kind of lists: Most charitable state, richest state, worst state economy, most educated state, best cities for your skin, state with the worst dental health. You get the picture.

We think our interest in such lists probably went back to a childhood of poring over almanacs. But somebody had to know the major crops of Lesotho, right? They're corn, beans, wheat, sorghum and peas, by the way.

WalletHub claims to have examined the 50 states across 30 key metrics in order to attain its happiness ranking.

For what it's worth, Tennessee is listed as 44th in emotional and physical well-being, 26th in work environment and 42nd in community and environment. Among more specific categories, it was listed as 48th in share of adult depression, which carried more significant weight than most categories in determining the state's emotional and physical well-being ranking.

We think most residents in the state would be surprised the state is ranked so poorly. They would likely say they're happy or relatively happy. That's their subjective opinion.

But WalletHub's ranking is objective, not based on what you or we think but on what can be measured -- the divorce rate, the average credit score, the underemployment rate, the commute time, the suicide rate, the adequate-sleep rate, etc.

You may pass your commute time by listening to music or an audio book, so your commute time doesn't add to your personal unhappiness quotient. Or your five-plus hours of sleep may be all you need, and you have your doctor's word to back it up. But if both of those times are worse in Tennessee than in other states, we'll be docked for them.

Another 2022 list by Modern Recovery has us at 41st, including us at No. 20 for happiness with work, 30th with our home, 33rd with our family and 33rd with our mental health. The state is ranked lower for happiness with financial security (who isn't these days?), health care and well-being.

The article also noted that if people are happy and enjoy a level of subjective well-being -- in other words, they believe they're doing well -- they tend to be healthier and live longer, earn more money, have a stronger immunity, are more likely to be productive and creative, cooperate more with others, have a decreased risk of heart disease and stroke, engage in fewer risky behaviors, have faster recovery after illness, enjoy better social relationships and engage in more prosocial behaviors such as charity fundraising and volunteer work.

Read the above paragraph again. It's essentially the first principle of Descartes's philosophy, which translates as "I think, therefore I am."

In a 2021 happiness ranking by Amerisleep, published in Forbes, in which Tennessee was ranked 48th, contributor Tracy Brower wrote that what makes people happy, in order of importance, are health, education, work-life balance, environment, safety, housing and income.

If some of those conditions aren't the best at the moment, the article says to take heart.

"[W]hat's also important in the happiness equation," the author writes, "are your choices. Even if you didn't win the gene lottery and even if your situation isn't idyllic, you can create the conditions for happiness which will have a positive impact on your level of satisfaction, joy and contentment. ...

"The key is to know what's most important, so you can spend your time, focus and energy in the pursuits which are most meaningful to you. ... How you spend your moments is how you spend your life. Consider your schedule as you would your budget, and spend time on the things that match who you want to be, what you want to accomplish and the relationships you want to have ... .

"You can be in a state of happiness no matter where you live -- by making great choices about your mindset and your actions."

We also like what Abraham Lincoln once said, and which is often quoted in 12-step programs: "Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be."

So, happiness lists will go on. They'll place the Volunteer State wherever the metrics and the calculations put it. But we each have an individual choice on whether to be happy. Our suggestion is to choose happiness for all the benefits that derive.