Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Mappiness

Mr. Jefferson ended his best-known sentence with “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”   The only thing missing was maps.

Life Liberty Pursuit of Happiness

In the Scholars’ Lab, we’re all about the spatial goodness.   Inspired by Kansas State University’s Seven Deadly Sins maps, we set about converting the qualities of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness into quantities we could visualize through maps.  Brainstorming commenced on how best to measure the unmeasurable.   Mappiness ensued.

We calculated a score for Life, for Liberty, and for the Pursuit of Happiness for each county in the continental U.S. and mapped how each county’s score deviated from the mean.  So our maps highlight extremes, both high and low.


Life mapped combined male and female Life Expectancy At Birth data for 1999.


Liberty mapped US Census datasets for 2000 to measure the institutionalized population as a percent of the total population.

Pursuit of Happiness

Pursuit of Happiness mapped the ratio of arts, entertainment, and recreation establishments to the total population from the 2002 US Economic Census.

Transforming datasets from a spreadsheet to a map takes advantage of our human ability to consume mass quantities of information visually.  Rows of numbers stashed away in academic journals and US Census tables come alive when mapped to show comparisons with their neighbors both near and far.  Patterns and clusters appear.  New questions are asked. New answers come.  New maps emerge.

And here’s good news:  If you find our measures of Mr. Jefferson’s famous phrase lacking, software tools to combine and manipulate datasets that may share only common geographic markers can now make cartographers of us all.

Happy mapping!

As a former Geographic Information Systems Specialist for the Scholars' Lab, Kelly worked with faculty, staff, and students to visualize, analyze, create, and manage geographic data. He earned a master's degree in Geographic Information Science from Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. His research interests include applied geography and cartography as an art form.


  1. I just can’t tell the colors, I might be a little green-red colorblind, but I kid you not, except the dark and the yellow, it’s all the same to me, so maybe also for a couple percent of the population.

  2. congrats Kelly I like seeing relatives published LOve you both Debbie

  3. So in Kansas they map “expenditures on art, entertainment and recreation compared with employment” and call it sloth; in Virginia they map “the ratio of art, entertainment and recreation establishments to total population” and call it the pursuit of happiness. The maps don’t look much alike. Is the difference all in the denominators? or in the scholars’ point of view?

  4. Very nice, but you should credit Christopher Murray and associates (Harvard School of Public Health) who provided detailed and compelling maps of life expectancy, by county, for 1990 (and periodically updated). His maps were published over a decade ago

  5. These maps are so cool, but my dad who has red-green color-blindness can’t distinguish between the different areas (can only see lighter or darker shading). Any chance you’ll make a different version? (My dad says blue and yellow is another color-blindness, but less common.

  6. I’m a big fan of chloropleth maps, history, and word-play, so I love, love, love, your headline.

  7. Conversely, it gives a higher anti liberty score to Malheur County in Oregon, which has about four people, one of whom is in jail.

  8. Great stuff. Now do one for Canada and compare.

  9. Outstanding! Except that the “happiness” map gives undue credit to counties that are home to national parks and the like, which are enjoyed by people who come from much farther afield. I’m not sure how one could nuance the data, though, to map the happiness effect of a facility beyond the place where it is located.


Project 1 | Information Design at Penn InfoVis 2014 | Information Design at Penn InfoVis 2012 « Information Design at Penn The New York Times & the American Way in map format