Published: June 16, 2014

A new study on obesity and people’s happiness by CU-Boulder sociology researchers suggests that it’s not obesity by itself that determines whether a person is happy with their body image but where you live.

According to study co-author Philip Pendergast, a doctoral student in sociology at CU-Boulder, if a person who is obese lives in a community where people share the same body type they are more likely to be happier.

“It’s most important to realize that it might not be obesity itself that’s making people unhappy but rather, perhaps, the stigma associated with being obese or just realizing you look different from other people that makes people unhappy," said Pendergast. "So in places where obesity is not very common, and someone’s obese, they’re going to view themselves more negatively. But in a place where there’s a lot of obesity, they look like everybody else and there doesn’t seem to be very much of a difference between those people that are normal weight and those people that are obese in those settings.”

Titled “Obesity (sometimes) Matters: The Importance of Context in the Relationship Between Obesity and Life Satisfaction,” the study looked at data from 1.3 million people from across the U.S.

The researchers, Pendergast and co-author Tim Wadsworth, an associate sociology professor at CU-Boulder, evaluated people’s life satisfaction by comparing individual happiness in the counties they live in to similar individuals in counties with varying rates of obesity.

“This is all based on pre-existing data," Pendergast said. "So what this required was a large national sample -- there’s about 1.3 million people. And it also required that we had identifiers for where people live so that we could compare that person to the other people that live in the same county as them.”

Pendergast says that while the results of the study might seem to prove only what others would consider common sense, the study highlights the significance of perception in our society.

“It all just comes down to being normative, looking like other people that are around you," he said. "I think the same can be said for a lot of things, when somebody’s different, then they’re less happy, and this seems to just be another case of that same kind of thing.”  

The weight aspect of the study is based on the body mass index, or BMI, that is a measure of relative weight based on an individual’s mass and height. For more detailed information on the study go the June issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Graphic credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence of self-reported obesity among U.S. adults.