Progress, Prosperity and Happiness

By August 22, 2016Blog
Smart Political Learning

“Progess equals happiness” – Tony Robbins

Progress leads to happiness, at least according to Tony Robbins.  But, is that true?  And, if so, what are the links between progress and happiness?  Or, prosperity, for that matter.  Does one naturally lead to the other?  How you are inclined to answer these questions may say a lot about your politics.  If you lean left of center, you probably take it for granted, like Tony Robbins, that when we embrace what’s new and innovative we prosper and are happier.  On the other hand, the more conservative you are may lead you to be skeptical of what others call progress and legitimately question where it’s taking us.

A couple of months ago, Angelou Economics undertook the Smart States Index study to look at the use of smart technologies to enhance or improve the delivery of public services to its citizens.  Smart technologies being those that enable machines to communicate real-time information about supply, demand, observed conditions and the environment through the Internet of Things (IoT).  Not a big topic of conversation under your rock?  Never fear, with all the chatter about AI, machine learning, interconnectivity, cameras, drones, facial recognition, privacy, and such, it soon will be.  We looked at 41 separate metrics under 5 broad categories ranging from energy to transparent government and ranked the states from 1 to 50 on each.  The top 5 states overall were Massachusetts, Oregon, Connecticut, Maine and Utah.  If you’re interested, you can get more information at, but I’m not writing about the rankings themselves.  I want to discuss what they may mean in the context of our current era of political discord.

After announcing the results of the study, we were contacted by a reporter from the Austin American Statesman newspaper who wanted to understand how Texas fared among its peers in terms of its progress.  I was asked to meet with the reporter and during that discussion, he asked how a state politician would use the information in the study to make policy decisions.  I easily cited several examples, but one in particular, got me thinking.  “Texas, whose economy is very dependent on oil and gas,” I said, “ranks 23rd in the use of renewable energy.  If you are a Texas politician not interested in being seen to support a policy that may cost jobs in the near-term, 23rd may be as good as you care to be.”  Even as I was answering, I was wondering if this was a case where more progress means less prosperity and less happiness.  I started to question whether the way we lean politically may influence our assumptions about what progress means, even down to the selection of the metrics we choose to measure it.

That interview led us to cross-reference the results from our Smart State Index with our national political landscape to see if there was a correlation between progress, as we’d defined it, and political leaning.

Political Map

The answer we got is yes, progress is highly correlated to political leaning.  Blue states scored, on average, approximately 12 “progress” points higher than Red states.  Somewhat predictably and hinting at the linearity of that relationship, the Swing states ranked about midway between the Blue and Red states.  We repeated this exercise by looking at the effect of the state Governor’s party affiliation on progress and again by party control of the state legislature.  We found that there was little difference in progress between states with Democratic Governor’s or Republican.  Their lack of influence would probably come as little surprise to most Governors.  But, the results for legislative control aligned closely to those for political leaning.  So, blue states have made more progress than Red states in the deployment of smart technology.  Undeniably.  But, does that mean they are also more prosperous, or happy?

To answer that question, we looked at some measures more directly related to prosperity and quality of life and, again, related those measures to the political leaning of the state.


Aside from the state’s unemployment rate which seemed unrelated to political leaning, Blue states saw, on average, higher job growth, higher incomes, higher productivity, and lower crime rates.  This result closely mirrors those of a study done by Cambridge University in 2009, in which 350,000 people in the US were surveyed using what’s known as the Gallup Well-Being Index.  That study found that people from wealthier, better educated and more tolerant states were happier, or at least better off.  When I mapped that data to the state’s political leaning, guess what?  Blue states, on average, ranked nearly 10 “well-being” spots higher than Red states.

Okay, the data is in.  Blue states make more progress, are more prosperous and their residents are better off than in Red ones.  Go Blue!  Drop mic.  And yet, a majority of states, perhaps people too, lean and vote Republican?  Clearly, the data says they are voting against their own best interest.  Why? 

Another study done in 2009 may provide a small clue.  The Gallup Well-Being Index makes certain assumptions about the relationship between well-being and happiness.  The index, for instance, defines healthy behaviors such as being a non-smoker or exercising as part of well-being, but never asks people how happy they are just to sit on the couch and light up.  In other words, in terms of happiness, the index may have limited utility because it ignores the fact that people aren’t always happy doing what’s good for them.  Could that well-known facet of the human condition be a factor here?  Perhaps the best way to determine whether people are happy is to just ask them, which is exactly what researchers from the University of Warwick in England did.  In a study also done in 2009, they asked 1.3 million Americans across the country to rate how happy they were and compared the responses to a separate database of objective measures such as, the weather, cost of living, air quality and other factors known to be directly related to our glad or mad-faced selves and ranked the states 1 through 50.  So, we took those results and looked at them from the perspective of political leaning and found something interesting.

Warwick Study Results

Folks in Red states are considerably happier than those in Blue states despite all the data that says they shouldn’t be.  If we think about this for a while, perhaps it isn’t all that surprising.  Progress is change and that is uncomfortable.  Progress is also prosperity, and prosperity brings more people, more traffic, higher rents and home prices, more activity, more noise and more diversity as people of all faiths, nationalities and ethnicities come to share in that prosperity.  When we progress and prosper, we are undeniably better off, but we’re not necessarily happier.  A lesson we’ve all probably learned in life, and one that we’ve seen play out in our experiences countless times.  We know it, yet we fail to recognize it in real life and are baffled by the gulf in strongly held opinions about what’s good for us individually and consequently, the country as a whole.

It took a while and required a little effort, but we finally found a measure that Red states ranked higher in than Blue states.  Happiness.  What that implies is that contrary to Tony Robbins, progress (or prosperity) does not necessarily equal happiness and those who reside in Red states are acting in their best interest when they lean Republican.  They are pretty happy and by questioning the utility and pace of progress, they are in a way, expressing their desire to remain that way.  The pursuit of happiness is a goal expressed in our Declaration of Independence and we should not be surprised to see our fellow citizens chase it.


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