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Statistically who's "very happy"

There you have it! Best to be a married, religious female over 60.

On the other hand, if you're 18-30 or between 45-59, you might want to start drinking heavily.

Me? I can't relax. The pressure of being atop a media conglomerate is overwhelming.

They’re the Happiest People in America. We Called Them to Ask Why.

Only 12% of respondents in a recent WSJ poll said they were ‘very happy.’ We called to ask what makes them different.

By Aaron Zitner, WSJ

Updated April 21, 2023 12:06 pm ET

America’s happiest people have a few traits in common: They value community and close personal relationships. They tend to believe in God. And they generally are older, often in their retirement years.

Those are conclusions from the latest Wall Street Journal-NORC poll, which found that a small group of Americans—12%—describe themselves as not just happy, but “very happy.”

Americans aren’t a particularly happy bunch. The 12% was the smallest share of “very happy” people ever recorded in NORC’s General Social Survey, dating to 1972. Among all 1,019 adults in the survey, large majorities said they felt pessimistic about the economy and prospects for the next generation.

Some 30% rated themselves at the lowest level of happiness, saying they were “not too happy.” A majority, some 56%, said they were “pretty happy.”

All this makes the slice of “very happy” people stand out. What do they know that the rest of Americans don’t?

Overwhelmingly, the very happy value strong relationships. Some 67% say marriage is very important to them, regardless of their own marital status, compared with 43% of respondents overall.

They tend to say belief in God is important. Two-thirds describe themselves as very or moderately religious, compared with less than half of adults overall.

Community involvement rates as more important among the very happy than among those who report lower levels of happiness. And while many of the very happy are satisfied with their personal finances, as a group they don’t attach high importance to money.

“We’re living on Social Security and a couple of small pensions. We live from month to month on that,” said Mary Ann DePasquale, 76, a retired medical secretary in Keedysville, Md., one of the survey respondents who identified herself as very happy. “But we don’t want for anything.”

The survey and follow-up interviews pointed to what doesn’t matter to their happiness. Many very happy people say they follow politics and are distressed by the state of civic life, but the group includes both Trump voters and Biden supporters. Neither political party claims a disproportionate share of the very happy.

As a group, the very happy aren’t without challenges. Some are facing problems, such as helping a child face cancer or divorce.

In interviews, many said that they felt their happiness was partly built into their personalities, partly controlled by choices they make in their daily lives. One common interest: fitness.

“I am the only person at the gym who works out with a 2-year-old in a stroller with me,” said LaTasha McCorkle, 35, a community activist in Greensboro, N.C. Her routine includes walking, weightlifting and swimming.

The very happy tend to be older. Those ages 60 and above accounted for 30% of people in the survey but 44% of the happiest group.

The findings make sense to Robert J. Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School. Research has shown that many people grow happier later in life, he said.

“As we get older and realize that death is a real thing, rather than making us depressed, it makes us put a priority on well-being,” he said.

Women in the Journal-NORC survey, far more than men, described themselves as very happy. Dr. Waldinger said that finding could result from the fact that women live longer than men.

Dr. Waldinger is also director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has tracked two cohorts of men and their families starting in 1938. One of its essential findings, he said, is that having “one or two people who you are securely connected to” is a top component of happiness and health.

While the Harvard study didn’t find religion to be a central spoke of happiness, Dr. Waldinger said he could imagine a link, noting that both marriage and religion give people a sense of belonging.

Below are more thoughts from the very happy in the WSJ-NORC survey.

Andrea Rankin: Focusing on community projects

Andrea Rankin says she isn’t happy when she doesn’t have a project. Photo: Andrea Rankin

Age: 80

Retired women’s health center director

Lives in: Cortland, N.Y.

Ms. Rankin worked for 25 years as director of a women’s health clinic. In retirement, she has stayed involved in her community.

“When I don’t have a project, I’m not happy,” said Ms. Rankin. Currently, she is writing grants to shore up Cortland’s aging YWCA building. Before that, she helped build housing units for domestic-violence victims. A major professional accomplishment, she said, was a communitywide project that cut teen pregnancy in her county.

Ms. Rankin is remarried after a divorce and said counseling helped her through hard times. She stays physically active, working out with friends four times a week.

“I’ve had a very full, wonderful life, and so if I died tomorrow, I would be satisfied with what I’ve accomplished,” said Ms. Rankin.

Larry Old: A loner who looks for purpose

Larry Old finds comfort living in the house where he was raised. Photo: Larry Old

Age: 77

Retired civil engineer

Lives in: Chesapeake, Va.

Mr. Old lives by himself on a 7-acre plot. “I’m kind of a loner,” he said. “I can hang out at my house for days.”

He lives in the home where he was raised, and he calls it a source of contentment. “I’ve got all kinds of great memories in that house,” Mr. Old said, recalling waking at 4 a.m. to feed chickens and milk cows. In later years, he grew closer to his mother there while helping her fight cancer.

Mr. Old, who is divorced, said he has a good friend rather than a lot of friends. And he has family in the area.

Mr. Old said he prays every night: “If I have a medical problem, I take it to God.” He is a fan of Pastor Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose Driven Life” and its opening line: “It’s not about you.”

He said that helping others, such as caring for his brother’s dog at times, gives him purpose. “If you’re a loner and just stay in your place, you’d be miserable,” he said.

LaTasha McCorkle: ‘Only worry about what you can control’

‘I wanted to just have my joy be centered within me and not depend on anything outside of me,’ says LaTasha McCorkle. Photo: Jesse Barber For The Wall Street Journal

Age: 35

Community activist

Lives in: Greensboro, N.C.

Ms. McCorkle believes people can learn to be happy. “I did not grow up around happy people,” she said. Those around her drank and smoked cigarettes, and Ms. McCorkle said she did, as well, until giving that up before age 30. “I wanted to just have my joy be centered within me and not depend on anything outside of me,” she said.

She tries to keep herself removed from the grievances of others, such as road rage on the highway.

One guiding thought Ms. McCorkle keeps in mind: “Only worry about what you can control.”

LaTasha McCorkle is politically engaged and holds community events through her business. Photo: Jesse Barber For The Wall Street Journal

Ms. McCorkle said she has always been politically engaged. Currently, she said, she holds community events through her business, aimed at informing people in lower-income communities about their rights, such as having certain criminal records expunged.

“I am not as religious as I was raised,” she said. “But I do understand that I’m here on earth having a spiritual experience. I’m here to go through life and experience what it all has to offer.”

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