|BY GINNY SASSAMAN
It was Mardi Gras season, and I was excited to rejoin The Happiness Walk in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 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.
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 a seemingly 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 lovingingly, 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. The full Louisiana happiness recipe contains many other ingredients.
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.
I 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 and varied Louisiana generosity reached a new level. In addition to food, rides, and housing, we received:
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 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.
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:
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!