According to a Gallup poll released today, the United States has shown almost no improvement in well-being in the past five years, increasing slightly from 2011 when Americans reported the most miserable scores since the survey began. The top and bottom states have also remained nearly the same. West Virginia, which received the lowest well-being score in 2012, has routinely been in the bottom two, and Hawaii ranked highest for the fourth year in a row.
The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which has surveyed 1.7 million Americans since the survey was first conducted in 2008, reflects the physical and emotional health of residents in each of the 50 states. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the scores of each state in the six categories that comprise Gallup’s index to identify objective measures that impact well-being.
Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport explained to 24/7 Wall St. that well-being is important because happier, healthier citizens tend to have positive social and economic impacts on the places they live. “Well-being is important because of the hypothesis that it leads to good outcomes,” Newport said. “If your citizens have high well-being, they’re more likely to be better citizens and engage in better behaviors and make things better all the way around. It’s a positive goal for those that look at what we ought to emphasize in society.”
Among the 55 questions Gallup asked residents in each of the past five years, there were certain categories that the states with low well-being tended to do poorly in and high well-being states tended to do well in. States with high well-being had populations that smoked less, exercised more and tried to learn new things each day. These states also tended to share the outcomes of those behaviors and activities — residents had lower levels of key health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart attacks, and had more energy.
Of the data 24/7 Wall St. considered in addition to Gallup’s indices, several showed a strong relationship with well-being. It appears that states with happy residents tended to have much lower poverty rates and higher median income. The states with the highest levels of well-being all have poverty levels below the national rate. Having stable income is important because it enables people to meet basic needs such as healthy food, clean water, medicine and health care.
We also found a strong relationship between employment and high school graduation rates and well-being. All 10 high well-being states had unemployment rates lower than the national average. All 10 states were in the top 15 for adults with a high school diploma.
In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Gallup research head Dan Witters explained how these may be connected. Health and emotional well-being, he noted are more likely to be present in “a more vibrant, more intellectually and psychologically attuned citizenry.” These people are more likely to be attractive to employers and to lead fulfilling lives. Witters added that healthier populations attract employers because they present less of a health care expense.
While many of the happiest and most miserable states have remained the same, many other states, Witters added, have seen significant improvement over time. In particular, seven states — Colorado, Indiana, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin — have shown statistically significant improvement. What’s more, these states all improved in the same few categories. These included obesity, smoking, access to basic needs and safety. “I think there’s a good learning opportunity there for other states,” said Witters. “If you look at those states that have moved the needle, they’ve gotten there through similar means.”
According to 24/7 Wall St.’s analysis, states in some areas of the country continue to do better than others. Of the 10 states with the highest levels of well-being, the majority are either in the West or Midwest. Of the 10 states with the lowest well-being scores, eight are located in the South. This has been the case since the survey began.
24/7 Wall St. reviewed all 50 U.S. states based on their scores in Gallup-Healthway’s 2012 Well-Being Index. On top of calculating an overall national level of well-being, the index also calculates the well-being for each state, assigning scores from 0 to 100, with 100 representing ideal well-being. The national score increased marginally in 2012, from 66.2 in 2011 to 66.7 in 2012. In generating the rank, Gallup combined six separate indices, measuring access to basic needs, healthy behavior, work environment, physical health, life evaluation and optimism, and emotional health. In addition to the index, we considered data from the U.S. Census Bureau, including income, poverty and the percentage of adults with a high school diploma or higher, all for 2011. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we reviewed state unemployment rates as of December 2012. We looked at life expectancy at birth, as of 2007, from the Kaiser Health foundation. We also considered violent crime rates for 2011 by state from the FBI Uniform Crime Report Program. All data are for the most recent period available.
These are America’s Happiest States, according to 24/7 Wall St.