Bloomberg recently came out with a misery ranking of all 50 states. The ranking was calculated by evaluating data regarding thirteen pressure points, among which were poverty, air pollution, underemployment, occupational fatalities, health insurance access, and income inequality. This ranking is a more complex version of the standard misery index, an economic indicator equal to the sum of the inflation and unemployment rates designed to provide a quick gauge of the economic and social condition of the nation.
The Bloomberg version had Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, and Arkansas as the five most miserable states (in order, with Mississippi being the most miserable). The online reaction to the ranking was mixed: some journalists and bloggers were unsurprised, while others—especially residents of those five states—claimed that Bloomberg (based in New York City) was missing what makes the South special. One blogger wrote that “In South Carolina we are all neighbors. The atmosphere is laid back, relaxed and not in a hurry.” In a comment to this post, someone wrote that “I lived in the south and loved the people, their love and personalities in life, there is nothing like it.” Another wrote that “‘happiness’ may be a difficult outcome to determine based on those metrics.” Are these criticisms of the Bloomberg ranking fair?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, misery is “a condition of external unhappiness, discomfort, or distress; wretchedness of outward circumstances; distress caused by privation or poverty.” Under this definition, the Bloomberg usage of misery is largely uncontroversial; yes, their ranking does not evaluate internal well-being, but that is okay because misery is a description of external conditions. In short, both sides can be right: southern states may be more miserable than northern ones, but Southerners may have better qualities of life. Perhaps they relate better with their neighbors or experience less day-to-day stress, for instance.
The critics of the applicability of the Bloomberg misery index might instead look to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which uses survey data to evaluate factors like emotional health, work environment, and healthy behaviors. Under this metric, South Carolina is ranked as the 33rd best state and Louisiana the 36th, not perfect but not nearly as low as their position in the Bloomberg misery index. As an aside, the eight highest ranked states are all west of the Mississippi River.
Of course, as we saw with the comments above, people generally equate misery with unhappiness, the latter of which is generally regarded as a subjective measure of one’s internal state. Although happiness can perhaps be predicted by evaluating external factors like unemployment and inflation, it cannot be determined from these factors. The Bloomberg reporter made this error, noting that “they actually are happier in the north.” We shouldn’t blame her, though; in common speech, misery and unhappiness are interchangeable descriptions. For the sake of clarity, they shouldn’t be.
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