Even without knowing it was Mardi Gras season, I was excited to rejoin The Happiness Walk in Baton Rouge. We were headed west toward Houston, right through Lafayette, Louisiana -- the Happiest City in America. Since the Happiness Walk is all about gaining a deeper understanding of individual happiness, we made Lafayette our headquarters for a week.
Let's just say I didn't lose any weight.
Clearly, food is a big part of the happiness recipe here. One woman told me,
"If we're not eating, we're planning our next meal."
From beignets to etoufee, shrimp gumbo (did you know you can put potato salad in gumbo instead of sour cream??) to boiled crawfish and white chocolate bread pudding, and other delectables I enjoyed tremendously but don't remember how to pronounce or spell, Louisiana food is heavenly.
Savoring is a highly recommended happiness strategy, and lots of savoring goes on in the Lafayette environs -- even an ordinary convenience store was filled with enticing aromas, emanating in part from the tastiest onion rings I've ever eaten. Additionally, food here seems often to be created and dished out lovingly, as well as received gratefully. Pleasure and kindness combined. All good.
Is it really coincidence that five other Louisiana cities made the top 10 list in a 2014 academic report? The researchers used data from the highly respected Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. In contrast, my food assertion is founded largely on non-scientific, non-rigorous personal experience -- which also tells me there's more to the story than food.
A Listening Tour: Let me back up and explain a bit about The Happiness Walk, which is part of GNHUSA. Essentially, this step-by-step enterprise is one big qualitative research project. From Stowe, Vermont in August 2012 to Washington, D.C., down the eastern seaboard to Jacksonville, Florida before turning west, The Happiness Walk records thousands of interviews with "regular" people all along the way. By the time we hit Los Angeles, then Seattle, and finally arrive home in Vermont in late 2018, we will have listened to many, many thousands of people share what matters most to them in life. The interviews will be transcribed, and the data analyzed by academics.
Our listening is heartfelt, and the interviews are voluntary. Not everyone wants to interact with us, so our findings are not scientifically valid. Still, we all agreed that Lafayette is especially happy.
We even have some data to back up our personal observations: in Lafayette, we had more offers of hosts, meals, and drivers than we could actually use. That has never happened before. Though individuals are amazingly generous to us wherever we go, the collective Louisiana generosity reached a new level. In addition to food, rides, and housing, we received:
- Gifts of time, as groups of locals joined us on the Walk and evening gatherings;
- Gifts of knowledge, with arranged walks to NUNU (which is pioneering a shared arts economy and reviving the area's French heritage) and to Avery Island, where Tabasco Sauce is made (and where we sampled jalapeno ice cream);
- Unsolicited cash donations; and
- A surprise trip to a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, topped off with a souvenir gold lame pantsuit!
Beyond the data, there was an intangible joie-de-vivre (joy of life) on this trip. Everywhere, the motto seemed to be laissez les bons temps roulez (let the good times roll) -- no matter life's very real challenges.
That spirit was on full display when we arrived at our host Jeannette's house just in time for a party with gumbo, etoufee, and King Cake. Many of the guests that night belong to the "Bluebirds," a breast cancer survivor's group. They were celebrating one Bluebird's birthday -- but they were also celebrating and grieving Cecile, another Bluebird who had died of breast cancer just a month earlier.
This is not fake, pasted-on-smiles happiness. These folks are not in denial of the bad stuff life dishes out. Since Lafayette is an oil town, and that industry is struggling, the area is facing serious economic turmoil with foreclosures and lay-offs. We heard all too many cancer stories. And we were told of widespread poverty in the region. There's plenty to cope with. Letting the good times roll seems to be a well-tuned coping mechanism.
I'm not an anthropologist, and we were only there for a week. That said, here are other factors that seem to be at the core of Louisiana happiness:
Heritage. The whole trip, we were in the thick of French Acadian, or Cajun, culture. At Jeannette's party, I asked one of the guests how other people could be as happy as they all seemed to be. "You have to be born here," was the reply.
Families. Everywhere we go, we hear how important families are, but there was a different flavor here. Seemingly, Acadian families stay close together -- all the better to let the good times roll. We met a man in nearby Krox Springs who was paralyzed from the chest down in an automobile accident. Yet he told us he is a very happy man, in part because he's built a wheelchair accessible party room and deck, with space for boiling crawfish with all the grandchildren.
Fun. Then there was Andrew in Arnaudville. He showed us his newly-renovated family homestead, complete with a huge deck and covered cooking area, and camper hook-ups, so his whole family can come have fun together. And let us not forget the distinctive Cajun music and dance, which we enjoyed very much on a night out with Jeannette.
Faith. We hear this a lot, too, especially in the South. Here, though, people didn't seem to wear their faith on their sleeves as much as other places, perhaps because Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion. It all felt much more laissez-faire.
My biggest takeaway? I'm not Catholic, I don't speak French, and, sadly, I don't think there's much hope for me in the food department. Instead, I want to lift up the joy. I want to celebrate more! Last Saturday, I donned the gold lame and Mardi Gras beads. I just might wear them this coming Saturday, too. It's not a natural fit, but you know what they say: laissez les bons temps roulez!