If the pursuit of happiness is our most-important Earthly mission, my neighbors and I are doing it wrong.
According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, my decision to live in Ohio—along with the other 11.5 million people who choose to live here—makes me a stupid moron.
The Buckeye State is the No. 5 overall saddest state in the United States, according to the 2013 index, down a couple slots from the year before. Had Gallup interviewed me, we might have been even higher on the list.
Ohio has problems.
We’re among the leaders in teenage pregnancy. The weather—at least in the Great Lakes region—is cloudy and shitty an extraordinarily large amount of time. We’ve got a bunch of meth cookers and users. Old Rust Belt cities. Disappointing sports teams. A bunch of dipshits. Too much crime and poverty for a state that is supposed to be part of the Midwest—America’s heartland—full of gorgeous fields, picturesque farms, quaint little towns and villages, and some of the kindest people in the world.
A plethora of decent-sized cities like Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, as well as mid-sized population centers like Toledo, Dayton, Akron and Youngstown have created this interesting blend of country-ish Midwest, and Rust Belt urban centers.
Everyone likes different things. Ohio is the No. 7 most-populated state in one of the world’s so-called superpower nations. So, it’s not some rinky dink shithole by any objective measure. But it has some rinky dink shithole pockmarks in it.
Lousy real-estate values. Sub-par employment numbers. And an overall lack of mental and physical health all converge to manufacture this sad state of affairs.
If you look for the sadness, you’ll find it.
You’ll see it on the worn-out faces of blue-collar workers at the pub. You’ll see it on the faces of people walking down the streets, pushing or pulling all their possessions in shopping carts or rolling luggage.
You’ll see it on the faces of stressed-out moms and dads trying to have a pleasant family meal at some casual dining chain restaurant.
A family trying to manufacture a good time, but both parents and all the kids wishing they were doing something else.
I think that’s because you can be sad even while doing something we think is supposed to be fun.
The state rank thing is bullshit.
For two reasons.
Reason #1: Despite the researchers claims that the results statistically cover 95 percent of American households, there are so many anomalies, it’s easy for me to dismiss it.
North Dakota, for example, went from the 19th-ranked state in 2012 all the way to No. 1 in 2013.
I’ve never been to North Dakota. I understand it’s a gorgeous place full of super-nice people. And both of those things go a very long way with me.
And, please, if you’re from North Dakota, I pray you don’t take offense to this: But… really?
I’m supposed to believe that the highest concentration of people with the greatest quality of life live in North Dakota? And that something amazing happened between 2012 and 2013 to justify the leap from No. 19 to the top of the list?
Reason #2: Wherever you go, there you are.
I was born in Iowa. Lived there until I was nearly five years old. I’ve spent lots and lots of time in Iowa. It’s ranked No. 10 on the list. It was No. 9 the year before.
And I do really like it there. At least the part of the state I consider my other home. People are very nice there. And they are a happy bunch, it seems.
But you know who’s not happy there?
People getting divorced.
People who lost their friends or their parents or their children.
People getting diagnosed with horrible illnesses.
People touched by some of the real horrors of the world: murder, rape, kidnapping, suicide, etc.
Those people aren’t happy at all. Even if they live in Iowa.
Even if they live in North Dakota.
The Sunshine State
I wanted to move to the beach because the sun and the beach make me happy.
Maybe it’s the Vitamin D.
Maybe it’s because it’s beautiful.
Maybe it’s a figment of my imagination.
I just know I wanted to be there, so I made it happen. I moved to Florida after graduating from college. But my then-girlfriend/fiancée and eventually wife was extremely unhappy.
I had my own issues with being so disconnected with my family and social network.
So, we made it our mission to return to Ohio a little more than a year down there.
It took us nearly three years to succeed. Every news reporting job I didn’t land was like a dagger. Things I used to hate, like shitty rusty cars and snow storms became novelties.
The sun and blue skies became a curse.
The pristine condition of the roads and buildings and automobiles felt sterile and fake. Things that are actually wonderful became not wonderful. Because of our perception.
And then we got back to Ohio.
A good job. A nice house (that we could afford, unlike in Florida!). Being surrounded by friends and family again—the most priceless, wonderful and important thing in the world, I think.
We were happy.
But Life Happens
No matter where you are, life happens. We know people who get sick and die. We have financial problems and stresses. We have drama at work and with members of our family.
Our human relationships suffer from ignorance. From selfishness. From stubbornness.
We age. We lose that innocence.
It’s brutal, I think. How ill-prepared so many of us are for the rigors of adulthood. All those years just blissfully running around playing with toys and video games and going to parties.
We can’t even help it. No one wanted to spoil it for us.
Our grandparents don’t tell us. Our parents don’t tell us. Other adults in our lives.
No one tells you the big secret: Shit’s about to get real.
And it does.
The shit gets real. As we lose people and things and marriages and ourselves.
I bet even people in places like North Dakota and Colorado and Hawaii feel that exact same way.
Nobody’s Gonna Tell Us How to Live
At least not me.
We get to make our own choices.
I’m a little stuck here in Ohio. Because of my five-year-old son who I will never, ever leave until he’s grown up and tells me to piss off.
And, yeah. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs around here.
The weather is shit.
The economy is shit.
I don’t have any family nearby.
And there are a million things to get sad about.
But I’m not going to wallow in that sadness. And no one else has to, either.
You should stand on the shores of Lake Erie on a beautiful summer evening. You can’t see the other side. The only thing missing is the coconut palms.
You should see how fun downtown Columbus is on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon after the Ohio State Buckeyes get a win.
You should see the smiles on the faces of all of the friendly people. Infected by our Midwesternness. Beautiful smiles. And politeness. And charity. And kindness.
There’s no place like home.
But I know a secret: EVERYBODY feels that way.
You look around wherever you live—even in Los Angeles or New York—and you can see all of the good this world has to offer.
Everyone can do that. In every nook and cranny. And I think a lot of us do. But that more people should.
The fifth-saddest state?
But I can choose happiness.
I’ll build something new.
Someone will want me.
I can be whatever I want to be.
I’ve lived in the saddest place in the world.
A lot of people live there. We all needed to be there, because it’s okay to hurt. But we’re always on the lookout. For a vacation out of there, or better yet, a permanent relocation.
There are no big, bright Exit signs in the saddest place in the world. There are no maps. No specific instructions to get us out of there.
And that’s because it’s an illusion. We can’t really run away from all of the things that actually matter.
All that stuff lives inside of us.
Mementos tucked away in a drawer.
Fuel that needs burned.
Luggage full of things we might need later.
We can’t run away. We can’t relocate to some magical place where the elusive “happy” exists.
It’s part of the lie we believe.
And totally impossible.
Our only choice is to change ourselves.
To change the world.
And that’s totally possible.