When I think of North Dakota, especially this time of year, I think “cold and “snow.”  In fact, a quick check of the morning temperature in Fargo while I was writing this article was a not-so-balmy 7 degrees. Turns out, though, there is a lot more to living in North Dakota than its weather. According to the latest Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index, North Dakota residents had the highest level of well-being in the nation last year.

North Dakota

And, get this, its next-door neighbor, South Dakota, came in second place with its highest score in the six years of the annual study.  What’s going on here, I wondered. Before I look for any explanations I can find in the movie “Fargo” – which I am overdue to see again, by the way – I decided to do a little research on this Gallup poll to find out just what makes the Dakotas happy places to live.

The management consulting firm Gallup partnered with Healthways, which bills itself as a global well-being improvement organization, to interview nearly 180,000 adults living in all 50 states throughout 2013. Using phone interviews, researchers asked participants from each state questions on six topics: social and community factors, work environment, financial security, physical and emotional health, healthy behaviors, and their access to food, shelter and healthcare.

The resulting data gives a well-being index that Gallup calls representative of an estimated 95 percent of all U.S. households.  The full “State of American Well-Being: 2013 State, Community and Congressional District Analysis,” will be available online in April with detailed reports being available this summer, according to Gallup, which began this study in 2008.

Here are some of the findings:

Midwestern and Western states earned nine of the 10 highest overall scores, while Southern states had eight of the 10 lowest scores. This regional pattern has been similar in previous years’ polls.

Hawaii, which held the number one spot for the previous four years, fell to the eighth spot last year. West Virginia and Kentucky, ranked 50 and 49 respectively, ranked lowest in the poll for the past five years in a row.

Massachusetts had the highest “basic access” score, which measures whether residents feel “safe, satisfied and optimistic in their communities.  Alaska scored the most points in the emotional health category, which measures that the poll signifies as “daily feelings and mental state.” Vermont was the top-ranked state in healthy behaviors, which evaluates activities that affect physical health.

Following North Dakota and South Dakota in the top spots, the states of Nebraska and Minnesota tied for third place. The remainder of the top 10 include: Montana, Vermont, Colorado, Hawaii, Washington and Iowa.

After West Virginia and Kentucky, the lowest scores came from Mississippi, Alabama, Ohio, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

The upcoming Gallup reports will draw conclusions from this data, but some can be drawn already. For one, the highest ranking states have both low populations and low unemployment rates. North Dakota is at the center of a new oil boom and its resulting high-paying jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statics’ December rakings, the state’s unemployment rate is 2.6, the lowest in the nation.

If you live in one of the top 10 “happy” states, you might be healthier because of it. Not surprisingly, researchers have found that physical health boosts mental health by lowering stress levels and boosting immunities. A landmark study by Mayo Clinic scientists, for instance, examined the records of more than 800 patients who had undergone psychological testing 30 years before. Those patients who scored highest on pessimism scores were about 20 percent more likely to have died than were the optimists.

If your state is in the bottom tier, or like most of the union, your is somewhere in between, here are some suggestions to boost your own happiness quotient:

Be positive:  Abraham Lincoln was correct when he said, “Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” Research shows that a good attitude really does help.

Dr. Robert Emmons, a University of California, Davis professor, based his book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier on eight years of research on gratitude. He calls gratitude the “forgotten factor” in health and writes that his studies show that people who literally count their blessings show a greater sense of well-being

Give back: A 2012 study by the Corporation for National and Community Service indicates that states with higher volunteer rates have lower rates of depression and overall better health. An earlier study showed that people who donated an average of four hours a week to charitable causes reported a greater sense of optimism and self-esteem.

Get moving: There is no coincidence that the top states in the Gallup poll offer room to roam. Exercise helps boost the immune system and prompts the brain to release neurotransmitters and endorphins, brain chemicals that work to ease depression. Exercise also increases body temperature, which can calming effects on our moods.