Hailey Middlebrook: Finding Florida’s keys to happiness

Wednesday, March 9, 2016 - 5:34pm

It was Friday afternoon, the last day of spring break. Naturally, it was the best weather we’d had all week in Destin, FL, with the wind brought down to a whisper and the sun scorching our pasty skin. Maybe not scorching — it was only about 60 degrees, still cold enough for cover-ups over swimsuits — but it felt like summer compared to Ann Arbor.

I came to Florida with the University Triathlon Club, tagging along on their annual spring break training trip. Though the majority of our days were filled with biking and running, some swimming was inevitable in the three-leg sport, with the help of full-body wetsuits. The swimmers in our crew zipped up as the rest of us sat on the beach. We watched as they ran into the flat ocean, stroking in sync, their bodies perfectly parallel to the shore.

Near the water’s edge, a burly man with leathery skin and a bucket hat was staking fishing poles into the sand. He lumbered over to our towels and introduced himself, asked about our vacation; he grinned like a guy who spends his days with a tackle box and a cooler of beer.

“I want that life,” said someone beside me.

The fisherman had wandered back down shore and was chatting with his fishing buddies, tan men with wrinkly smiles. We unanimously agreed: we wanted what that guy had.

Turns out the happy beach dweller we met isn’t an anomaly in Florida. Last month, both Naples, FL, and the community of North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, FL, were respectively ranked the first and third happiest cities in the U.S., according to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.

To compile the list, researchers collected self-reported data from members of 190 U.S. communities, asking participants to evaluate their health, social relationships, community strength, financial security and sense of purpose. The happiest communities reported were those with less reported stress, little depression, healthier diets and more frequent exercise.

They also had more fun. “Many (residents of Naples, FL) like their daily activities and enjoy an intellectually lively culture, telling interviewers they learn or do something interesting every day,” TODAY reported. Tucked in the Everglades on the state’s southwestern coast, Naples offers something for everybody, from world-class hotels to swamp tours, sprawling mansions to fish shacks. And when tourists leave, two mainstays linger: retirees and the rich.

On the surface, happiness seems to have an obvious correlation with wealth and leisure time. The two aren’t exclusively related, however. For example, take a CEO in Bellingham, WA, the city with the highest levels of stress in the list, with 53 percent of adults reporting overwhelming daily stress. The CEO may have a large paycheck to spend on fun activities (which would significantly decrease her stress), but she has no time to take a vacation from work.

Similarly, an unemployed man from Charleston, WV, which ranked dead last on the Well-Being Index, may have free time in his day, but he is crippled with fear of not having food on the table (about a quarter of the population reported they couldn’t afford groceries or medical expenses, TODAY said). It makes sense, then, that the affluent, predominantly retired community of Naples is the happiest: they have plenty of money to spend, and endless time to do it.  

But something’s missing here. On the beach, we didn’t necessarily envy the Floridian’s yacht or wish our days could be spent fishing like his. What struck me the most about him — why I wanted that life — had nothing to do with money, leisure time, or even the beach itself, but everything to do with the wrinkly friends the man was laughing with.

In the rankings, Naples wasn’t the richest, healthiest or most purposeful city, but it scored first in perhaps the most important (and often overlooked) category: community well-being. People weren’t happier just because they could shop or spend their days fishing; they were happiest because they had others to share their experiences with. Being an active part of a community — whether it’s a weekend golf crew, book club or church congregation — seems to boost our health and happiness more than anything else.

When we’re not connected, our happiness — and health in general — can spiral downward quickly. As an article in the Guardian about the secrets of happy cities said, “As much as we complain about other people, there is nothing worse for mental health than a social desert. The more connected we are to family and community, the less likely we are to experience heart attacks, strokes, cancer and depression. Connected people sleep better at night. They live longer. They consistently report being happier.”

Stanford University’s wellness report also addressed community influence, saying “The problem: we often do not recognize the importance of social connection. Our culture values hard work, success, and wealth, so it’s no surprise some of us do not set aside enough time for social ties when we think security lies in material things rather than other people.”

For college students, these findings are incredibly important. As we dip our toes into adulthood, we start to realize how big the world is — how many cities we can live in, careers we can pursue, degrees we can accept, fitness goals we can achieve — and it’s easy to lose our social lives in the thick of it.

We’ll get back to our friends and family, we think, after the MCAT exam. And the marathon. And graduation. Because when the “important” things are accomplished, we’re convinced we’ll be happier. And we’re wrong.

We didn’t want to leave Florida on Saturday morning. Not because of the sun or the sand, the sports bra runs and 100-mile bike rides on snow-free roads, or even the poolside pina coladas. We’d miss them all in Ann Arbor, no doubt, but what we’d miss most is our connection with each other: 22 people in a house, crowded and cramped, happily sharing every experience.

Let’s do that more often.