3 Keys to Happiness

Active Lifestyle

Fitness and exercise increase happiness, and Minnesota ranks highly among the movers and shakers

Our mental and emotional health as well as happiness are boosted by the kind of physical well-being promoted by an active lifestyle. Exercise has been found to bolster the human immune system as well as release pleasure-causing endorphins; one study of laboratory rats found that exercise actually has the same effect as antidepressants on the brain.

Minnesotans are among the top in the nation in levels of fitness. In the 2014 American Fitness Index compiled by the American College of Sports Medicine, Minneapolis grades second among all American cities, and the “Most Active” rankings from Men’s Health places Minneapolis and St. Paul at fourth and fifth respectively.

From an emphasis on bicycling consistently among the tops in the nation, to our lakes teeming with runners and walkers of all ages and our cross-country trails crisscrossed with skiers in the winter, Minnesota is a place where happiness and fitness intersect.

“Cycling contributes to my overall happiness by allowing me to manage my diabetes through exercise. Also, my passion for cycling allows me to set and reach attainable goals!”

–Tammy McLemore, Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota

“In the wind and cold, after I pedal hard over hills, I’m exhausted, but I feel completely at peace with the brutal Minnesota winter (although that could be the endorphins).”

–Chris Sur, winter cycling enthusiast

“Running contributes to my personal happiness in several ways. While I started running for the personal health benefits (physical, mental and spiritual) that long periods of exercise provide, the biggest positive impact running has had in my life is in developing deep relationships and a community that has transcended running.”

–Nathan Campeau, Minnesota Distance Running Association (No. 180 in photo above)

Meaningful Work

Minnesota is a good place to find rewarding work—if you haven’t yet found it, here are a few questions to ask

Meaningful, rewarding work is a major factor in overall happiness, and Minnesota does well by measures of employment opportunities (third in the nation in a 2013 survey of best states for work), high-rated employers (with Bremer Bank, Graco Inc., and Mortenson Construction making a 2013 national best-of list), and a reasonable cost of living to make our salaries count.

Things are good, but many of those looking for improvement seek out Minneapolis-based business and jobs consultant Elizabeth Craig, who has been a career and job-search strategist for more than two decades. We asked her to define happiness at work—and the questions to ask when we find ourselves unhappy.

“The happiest people are doing the thing they love to do, with a community of people they enjoy being with, in a place they really like,” says Craig. “They also feel that where they’re working is in sync with their core values—it’s when their skills are in sync and they still feel unhappy that it’s really the values piece that’s the problem.”

  1. Am I doing what I truly enjoy and value?“Focusing on core values is something people often put off until later. They say the place is fine, the people are fine, but after 10 years or 20 years, they say this isn’t a fit any longer. The question is what gets you up in the morning, or what a person is doing when they lose all track of time. There’s a lot to be gained from stepping back and asking, What are those times when I really enjoy my work?”
  2. Has my job has changed over time?“Sometimes a person has started a position and are using their top capabilities—whether it’s investigating, researching, resolving disputes, or writing. But suddenly they’ve been there for a long time, and they’ve been given additional duties that aren’t what they really enjoy.”
  3. Is a different job really the answer?“My clients are often able to go to their employer and explain what their top capabilities are, and suggest that certain projects be assigned to different people. If they’re able to imagine the life they want, it’s often with their current employer—about 50 to 75 percent of the time.”
  4. Am I truly stuck where I am?“The people who feel stuck and frustrated the most are the ones who feel that they’re in a place where they can’t make a change. I think people often haven’t taken the time to look into exactly why they feel stuck and frustrated—and it happens at all phases and stages, that inner feeling of being unhappy and needing to ask: How do I get unstuck? They might have a fear of moving to something they know would be better. I use the acronym FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real. Everyone has the opportunity to make a change.”
  5. What can I do to be more happy at work today?“Being happy is truly a choice. What’s amazing is how one happy person in a workplace can literally change the whole demeanor of the place. I have some clients whose demeanor hasn’t been happy, or for whom it doesn’t come naturally. But they start smiling more, and people want to work around happy people. Looking out on a sea of employees, the happy ones bring meaning and value—they know what they want to be doing and what they add. A lot of it starts with a smile.”

Good numbers at work

3 — Minnesota’s rank in 2013 Gallup economic confidence index

6 — Minnesota’s rank in 2013 Gallup job creation index

6 — Minnesota’s rank among best states to make a living, 2013 survey by money-rates.com

Strong Family and Social Bonds

Minnesotans have among the best networks of support in the nation

Photo by Sara Rubenstein

Humans are social animals by our deepest nature. We thrive when we’re part of a healthy network of loved ones—preferably in close proximity, offering their support and receiving ours in links of happiness.

“We know that strong family bonds are a linchpin for happiness and human flourishing,” says Bill Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. “There’s tons of social science attesting to the power of social bonds. Couples in permanent committed relationships do well in every measure of health and well-being, and parent-child bonds are also quite important.”

Minnesota ranks near the top in the nation of such measures as number of people born here in the state (more than 60 percent), which leads to multiple generations living close to one another. Doherty adds that we’re in the top 10 in marriage stability, and consistently rank well against other states in measures of social trust. “When you put these together,” he adds, “you have a kind of matrix of support around people that helps their happiness.”

Doherty acknowledges that these Minnesota characteristics shouldn’t necessarily be “romanticized”—not every family is a happy one, no matter how happiness is measured. But close family connections make the difficult business of child rearing more of a shared responsibility, and research suggests these connections are also a positive influence during the early years of marriage.

This circle of familial connections lends meaning to life, says Doherty, as well as support. “And connected with that is a high level of civic participation,” he adds. “People who have support are more likely to give support.”

We’re happiest when we’re in a web of closeness, which plays out when families and social networks bring generations together with common purpose. “There’s a powerful norm of reciprocity in human beings,” Doherty says. “That’s why adult children take care of their elderly parents. When we are given to, we have a desire—almost a need—to give back, and to pass it along.”

Minnesotans who were born in the state more than 60 percent

Divorces per 1,000 people in Minnesota 2.8 (10th lowest in U.S.)

People in Minnesota who say their wallet containing $200 would be returned by a neighbor if lost
80 percent (No. 10 in U.S.)

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Quinton Skinner is a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities. A former senior editor of Minnesota Monthly, he held the same post at Twin Cities METRO and 
has written for major national and local publications. He is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths and author of several novels, including his latest, Odd One Out.