Louisiana is the happiest state in the country. Word of that new ranking may have surprised many people across the nation, but it came as no surprise to community leaders or to me. Chances are it didn’t surprise you either. In Acadiana, it seems that there’s a smiling face around every corner and a bowl of gumbo cooking on every stove. Who wouldn’t be happy dancing at Downtown Alive! or Rhythms on the River? Our joie de vivre is what the region is known for, and it’s what turns visitors into residents.

In the study published last December, Andrew Oswald and Stephen Wu link happiness with quality of life in a region. The overall results provided validation to something I’ve been saying for years — if people say they’re happy, they are happy.

The researchers calculated their results from a comparison of two data sets of happiness levels in each state, one that relied on participants’ self-reported well-being and the other an objective measure that took into account standard quality of life measures. The self-reported information came from 1.3 million U.S. citizens who took part in a survey administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 2005 and 2008. The objective measures were taken from an independent 2003 study that measured indicators such climate, taxes, cost of living, commuting times, crime rates and schools. This external data set was then compared to the self-declared levels of happiness, with Louisiana coming out on top.

This is especially good news since Louisiana frequently ranks low on national quality of life listings, despite our world-renowned culture and entertainment. That’s because to researchers quality of life is not just music, food and festivals. It is also quantified by indicators such as health, education, crime, cost of living and poverty rates, to name a few. However, I feel a distinction needs to be made between Quality of Living and Quality of Life. No doubt, a region with a high quality of living is a safe and stable one, but it may lack the dynamic je ne sais quoi that makes living there fun and enjoyable. Sometimes you need a little spice to make a place exciting, even if that spice may also give the region a lower ranking on standard measures.

As a state and community, we need to take measures to not only repair the perception of Louisiana’s quality of life, but to make actual measurable gains and improvements to the standard measures, while at the same time highlighting our spicy, indigenous culture. Let’s take a look at how Louisiana and Lafayette stack up on some standard quality of life measures — health care, poverty and cost of living.

Health care is a major quality of life concern for Louisianans. As a state we are plagued with obesity and heart issues, as well as elevated cancer rates, infant mortality and teen birth rates. On a whole, Lafayette Parish rates better than the rest of the state; however, there is much room for improvement. According to the Department of Health and Hospitals, per 100,000 population, diseases of the heart caused 164.1 deaths in Lafayette Parish, 84.3 less than the state and 77.6 less than the U.S. totals in 2002. (That’s the most recent year available, but data for a new report was gathered in 2009.) Cancer incidence rates paint a bleaker picture, though. Lafayette Parish has higher incidence rates than both Louisiana and the U.S. Though the numbers for infant mortality (9.5 per 1,000 births) and teen birth rates (11.8 percent total births) in Lafayette Parish are both lower than the statewide number, they are still slightly higher than the national averages (7.0 and 10.6, respectively). On a positive note, Lafayette is the region’s hub for health care with 18 hospitals and care facilities with more than 1,300 beds and more than 400 physicians in 30-plus specialties. These facilities offer residents the latest in cutting-edge health care services.

Lafayette Parish has one of the highest per capita income (PCI) figures in the state at $40,898 per every man, woman and child. Lafayette’s PCI has increased 72 percent in the last 10 years, while the U.S. per capita income has increased just over 50 percent. The higher incomes of some Lafayette residents effectively cancel or balance the lower income level of other residents. While the number is a valid measure of Lafayette’s overall affluence, it may not accurately reflect the buying power of all Lafayette’s residents. While most people in Lafayette live comfortably, there is a significant number of individuals living at or below the poverty level. According to 2008 Census estimates by American Community Survey, more than 8,000 families in the Lafayette MSA live below the poverty level of $10,000 annual income for an individual.

LEDA participates in quarterly pricing for the ACCRA Cost of Living Index, which measures relative price levels for consumer goods and services. The national average equals 100, and each participant’s index is read as a percentage of the total average. Lafayette’s cost of living of 99.1 (3Q 2009) falls below the national average but is still higher than the other southern cities LEDA tracks. Lafayette’s indexes for transportation (107.2) and housing (104.1) bring up our average; however, Lafayette’s indexes for utilities (92.1) and health care (85.8) rank among the lowest in the country. The index is based on more than 50,000 prices covering almost 60 different items. The composite index is based on six components — housing, utilities, grocery items, transportation, health care and miscellaneous goods and services.

What do these numbers mean? Taken individually, some paint a better picture of Louisiana and Lafayette than others do. But you shouldn’t choose a community — to live, or operate a business in — based on a single statistic. You need to look at the big picture, and that’s what we strive to do at LEDA. That’s why I believe Louisiana being named the happiest state is one of the most telling and relevant rankings we can share with our clients, prospects and with you. It is the essence of the big picture: Lafayette is the place to live, work and play.

Gregg Gothreaux is president and chief executive officer of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority.

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