Does being the ‘happiest city’ give Lafayette the edge on coronavirus?

Lafayette has a tendency to produce strong friendships like the one shared by Skylar Manuel and Trey Boone. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Trey Boone was not yet in the business of caring for man’s best friend when he first met his. He was working in an office next to a bakery called Sky’s the Limit Cakes on Eraste Landry Road. The bakery had just opened up, and the proprietor, Skylar Manuel, produced a fantastic array of cakes in there: tall and tiered, detailed with richly colored fondants and piped-icing rosettes. Some cakes were sculpted into convincing replicas of Star Wars droids, popcorn buckets, ice chests filled with beer.

Skylar had come to Lafayette from her hometown of Krotz Springs, and while she knew how to bake a cake, she’d learned most of it by experience in a professional bakeshop. She’d never taken a business class. 

Trey, though, was impressed. “She had a lot stacked against her, but she always had a positive attitude,” he says. The two started chatting during the workday. They discovered a shared love of dogs, and they both had entrepreneurial ambitions. Trey, who’d studied economics at LSU, encouraged Skylar on the business-side of things. Trey was born and raised in Lafayette, and eventually started inviting Skylar to get-togethers with his other buddies around town. 

“Now we’re all friends,” says Skylar. “It’s like they envelop you in this big group.”

When Trey decided to open a franchise location of The Dog Stop a few years back, Skylar helped him train new employees and even worked the front desk a couple days a week. Five years since they first met, the two remain close. When asked how often they talk, Skylar laughs. “If I go a day without getting a ranting phone call from Trey, something’s wrong.”

While much has changed in Trey and Skylar’s daily lives since the pandemic took hold in March, the two still find time to support each other through the challenges. It’s clear that their friendship will come out of this time as strong as ever. But what about the rest of Lafayette? As statewide unemployment rises and the price of oil dips to increasingly surreal benchmarks, imagining how everyday life might look on the other side of all this can be a frightening enterprise. And while it’s intuitive enough to assume that our social networks and general sense of well-being might seriously decline, friendships like Trey and Skylar’s suggest a more hopeful next chapter. 

According to the prior findings of social scientists, Lafayette — famously declared the “happiest city in America” in 2014 — may be uniquely positioned to come out of all this with its social and emotional landscape intact.

However commonplace Trey and Skylar’s friendship might seem, studies on loneliness in the U.S. indicate their connection isn’t so ordinary. Nearly 25% of U.S. adults reported having not a single close friend with whom they could discuss important matters, according to a 2004 study. This kind of social isolation comes at a high price; being friendless, research indicates, is more detrimental to your health than obesity, high blood pressure, even smoking. 

So how is it that Trey and Skylar managed to sidestep this nationwide epidemic of loneliness? The secret to their friendship’s success might have less to do with their shared interests than with the city where met. A small but growing canon of research suggests that Lafayette has developed a robust collective resistance to loneliness. Scientists are beginning to understand that the key to our city’s interconnectedness might lie in a highly infectious emotion: happiness.

Lafayette is, by several objective measures, a happy city. In 2014, the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed data from the CDC, some of it mined from as far back as 1940. The researchers controlled for all manner of factors in their happiness modeling: income, education, population, age, violent crime, unemployment rate, even things like the coldness of winter and the amount of rain a place gets. The results ranked Lafayette as the single happiest metropolitan area in the U.S., after controlling for demographics and individual income.

The study’s authors further noted that the happiness of a city often remained stable throughout multiple decades, despite changes in overall economic status. In their opinion, then, the happiness of a particular place was not linked to commercial growth or decline, but rather, the result of some other “long-standing attribute.”

But what might this attribute be? Friendships like Trey and Skylar’s might provide a clue, as science is beginning to reveal how our social connections affect the transmission of happiness.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Diego investigated the power of happiness to spread through the fabric of a social network in a longitudinal study of nearly 5,000 individuals over 20 years. Some of their results were fairly intuitive: if you are happy, it increases the odds that your friends are happy, too.

But the effects of happiness were more far-reaching than researchers had anticipated. The authors examined social connections two and three times removed from a particular person — the friends of their friends, and the friends-of-their-friend’s friends. In some cases, these individuals had never even met. Still, researchers discovered that if a person was happy, their emotion flowed outward toward those thrice-removed strangers, noticeably increasing the likelihood that they would feel happy as well.

For comparison’s sake, the paper noted that a person who receives $5,000 is only 2% more likely to feel happier as a result. However, if that same person has a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend who’s happy, it ups their chances by 5.6%. Their findings suggest that, if it’s happiness you’re after, you might be better off brightening the day of a friend rather than, say, obsessing over the arrival of your federal stimulus payment.

The implications of this study are far-reaching, especially for a place like Lafayette, where a variety of different social worlds exist. Trey, for instance, mentioned belonging to a few distinct groups of friends: guys he knows from high school, friends from college, even some older folks he and a few friends walk their dogs with once a week. Now, imagine these different social networks in a geometric way, each one a flat, two-dimensional plane. In Trey’s case, the dog-walkers-club is one, Trey’s college-friend-group is another, his high-school-buddies yet another. What they all have in common is Trey; that’s where they intersect. Thus, the happiness felt by a dog-walker at the outer edge of one plane ripples through Trey all the way out to that friend he met in Spain a decade earlier. The friend from Spain has never met the 63-year-old dog walker from Lafayette, but her happiness touches him nonetheless.

All of Lafayette’s social networks work like this, affecting one another through space and time. Each resident probably belongs to a few, providing a number of happiness transfer points that connect one social group to another. When Trey first introduced Skylar to his friends, he was not only bringing her into the social fabric of this place, but also drastically increasing the chances she’d catch some of that Lafayette happy.

There are a variety of other reasons why Lafayette is a hard place to boudé. It’s size — not too big, not too small — hits a happiness sweet spot. A recently published paper found that “life is significantly less happy” for people living in large, densely-populated places. On the other hand, very small towns have problems, too. One study of well-being in Iowa found that the smallest towns — between 500 to 6,000 citizens — were less happy overall than their slightly larger counterparts. One of the primary reasons for this disparity has to do with what authors of the paper call “social capital,” defined as a measure of “trust, reciprocity, cooperation, networks, and attachment.” Social capital was higher in the slightly larger towns than very small ones.

When I asked Skylar to compare Krotz Springs, population 1,200, to Lafayette, she laughed. Then she told me how, in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, she received dozens of cake order cancelations as celebrations got nixed. Instead of asking for a refund, though, most folks told her to hold their payment as a credit. “I cried every time somebody told me that,” Skylar said. “People are just different here. They’re more open. They understand.”

Chances are if you live in Lafayette, you’re bound to catch at least a little bit of its happy soon enough. It happened to me six years ago, back when I was one of that lonely 25% without a close friend to call. I sat on the covered stoop outside of my apartment in Freetown, brooding over a cup of tea. It was raining hard. Across the street, some guy I didn’t know was out with his dog in the downpour. He caught my eye and smiled and called out to me from under his umbrella, “Don’t you love this weather?”

Despite myself, I smiled back, momentarily warmed by a feeling that has afflicted me, in gradually escalating severity, ever since.