How do you measure whether Beaufort is 'America's Happiest Seaside Town'?

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comAugust 3, 2013 

Happy is the day that USA Today comes to town to tell the nation about the charms of Beaufort.

Surely, that's what the powers that be had in mind when they encouraged everyone to vote online every hour from January through March so that Beaufort would be named "America's Happiest Seaside Town" by Coastal Living magazine.

Beaufort may or may not be happier than other towns, but it certainly has better mouse-clickers. The magazine pronounced our county seat the winner, saying, "Lowcountry friendliness and urban refinement strike just the right balance in this beautiful South Carolina town known for its historic ante-bellum architecture, exquisite local cuisine and rich African-American heritage."

USA Today found plenty of examples of those attributes in its story published last week.

It had a nice picture of Robert Middleton explaining his heritage as a docent at Penn Center on St. Helena Island.

The story dissected the issue of binyahs and cumyahs -- those who have been here vs. those who have come here. The writer discovered that in a 302-year-old city, it's hard to be a binyah. But at least those are happier words than once used: "carpetbagger" and "scalawag." And it might even mean that fewer of us are married to cousins.

The story had a most peculiar beginning: "In America's happiest seaside town, it's legal to beat your wife on the courthouse steps. But only on Sundays."

Huh? That's rubbish. It's a line that turns up on feeble websites that list dumb old laws, but anyone who tries it could end up in the friendliest seaside jail.

"You would be arrested and I would prosecute you," said 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone.

If the point is that Beaufort has its share of wickedness lurking behind carefully restored ante-bellum facades, a better source would be the delectable book written two years ago by a child of Beaufort, historian and archivist Alexia Jones Helsley.

The prologue to "Wicked Beaufort" says the book "traces three centuries of mayhem, murder and other human frailties in Beaufort and Beaufort County, South Carolina. The Port Royal area's early history is replete with treachery, cannibalism and blood." It documents decades' worth of death, betrayal and crime.

It's enough to make you happy just to be alive.

For some people, even that might be a chore.

The Wall Street Journal reported that another town in the running for the happiest seaside town didn't even want to be known as happy. Some people in Sag Harbor, N.Y., groused that it would attract more people, who would take parking spaces and generally make the natives less happy.

Gauging happiness is not easy for reporters or anyone else.

The Wall Street Journal reported: "Throughout the ages philosophers and even marketers have tried to grasp the elusive nature of human happiness. But of late, social scientists, academics, even mathematicians, have weighed in and a field has emerged -- 'positive psychology.' University of Vermont scientists created a 'hedonometer' that measures happiness by analyzing tweets and the words within them connoting joy or sadness. There is even a peer-reviewed journal called, not surprisingly, 'The Journal of Happiness Studies.' "

The study of tweets says Hawaii is the happiest state; Napa, Calif., the happiest city; and Saturday the happiest day.

Other scientists are finding a connection between happiness and time spent at the beach.

Beaufort has gotten a lot of attention over the "happiest" thing, and that's good. But for the next year, it also will have a bull's eye on its back. It will be watched carefully by USA Today and others to see if it is really friendly or just another happy face.

That's harder to do than click a mouse.

The challenge reminds me of an old line I first saw here in the Lowcountry, in a cookbook by the New First Missionary Baptist Church of Edisto Island:

"Be careful how you act. You may be the only Bible some people ever read."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

USA Today: "America's Happiest Seaside Town?"

Coastal Living: 2013 America's Happiest Seaside Towns

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