Tuesday, March 17, 2009

America: Can the Human Being and the Happy Coexist?

A new week, a new blog post. It's been pleasantly chillier here the past few days, and we've been enjoying a few fires in our fireplace. With the vernal equinox approaching this coming weekend, winter's nearly over. As for our national discontent, its winter seems to still be far off on the horizon.

Interestingly enough, this particular American unhappiness seems to vary by locale across the nation. At least, according to a recent report by Gallup and disease management company Healthways. The report was based on a year-long random-dial telephone survey of 355,000 Americans. Sample sizes varied by state, but were controlled to reflect population demographics. The survey was conducted in the interest of drawing attention to people's quality of life beyond the standard, expected indicators. (ie: median income, poverty rates, life expectancy.) In attempting to examine people as a whole through all facets of their lives, they found that in many parts of the country, we're seeing shifts in what people consider essential to happiness.

The life quality measures the Gallup-Healthway team came up with are: life satisfaction, work quality, healthy behavior, physical health, emotional health, and basic access to necessities like food and shelter. Participants were asked a variety of questions on each subject, focusing on matters like job satisfaction, health insurance, and if they'd laughed or smiled in the past day. The survey's strength is regarded as being in the mix of subjective and objective elements in its conception. Though this mix can also potentially produce misleading results - particularly if all elements were interpreted the same way.

Unemployment map by the Washington, DC Bureau of Labor Statistics

Utah reportedly has the happiest populace, its residents satisfied with their work environments, emotional health, and local communities, amongst other aspects of life. The state also enjoys a lower unemployment rate - 4.6% - than the current national rate at 7.6%. Hawaii, Wyoming, Colorado, and Minnesota made up the rest of the top five in that order.

West Virginia, on the other hand, came in dead last. States with manufacturing-reliant economies like Michigan and Ohio appeared in the bottom 10 as well.

As difficult as it is to compile a numbered list based on a mix that includes subjective elements, even the top state wasn't without its problems. Hawaii was in the top 10 for every category but work environment, where it fell to dead last. From that, it was concluded that Hawaiians have an excellent quality of life in regard to physical and emotional health, life satisfaction, and basic needs, but suffered greatly in regards to job prospects with its 6.1% unemployment rate hitting a ten-year high.

States at the bottom of the list saw similar lopsided trends with Ohio and Michigan's work environments ranking 44th and 47th respectively, but 30th and 23rd in the basic necessities category. West Virginia ranked last in life satisfaction, physical health, and emotional health, but managed to come in 13th in regards to its work environment with its 5.3% unemployment rate. The West Virginia governor's office communications director also said that the rankings failed to reflect matters there like the declining youth obesity rates and increased infrastructure spending.

University of Pennsylvania assistant professor of business and public policy Betsey Stevenson interprets the differences across the states as potentially reflective of a number of factors: policy, social services, and the types of people choosing to live there.

Social scientists linked per capita gross domestic product with happiness long ago as well, and median incomes in the top and bottom three states actually reinforce that point. Stevenson warns against relying on that indicator, citing that there's a lot more to happiness than your income. that particular vein of social scientific thinking seems fairly dated by today's standards in looking at all the complex factors contributing to happiness.

The Gallup-Healthways survey and other recent polls seem to indicate that Americans are starting to focus on other factors of life often neglected in past years when the economy was in a better place. A MetLife online survey of 2,200 people this past week featured participants expressing changing opinions on what the "American dream" now was. Senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Metlife Beth Hirschhorn says that financial security took precedence over family by a large margin in the past. This year, 44% of their respondents said that spending time with friends and family was most important. And the trend's breaking generational barriers, with over a quarter of Gen-Xers saying that marriage was important to achieving the American dream, an increase from the 18% who said so in 2008.

Despite the nation's track record of obsessive consumerism and materialism, there's evidence of an American trend towards a new attitude in regards to consumption with four in ten respondents expressing buyer's remorse about past purchases, wishing they had spent less and saved more. The Baby Boomer generation largely reported that pressure to acquire material possessions had dropped significantly since the past year.

A Northwestern Mutual survey this past week also found similar results. In their online poll of 1,000 Americans, they found that more people found that spending time with family and being healthy were now more important than "owning the home of your dreams" or "earning a high income."

The Gallup-Healthway team plans to continue this yearly survey for 25 years, tracking the changes and trends in Americans' feelings on their well-being. It's certainly an interesting - if nonetheless flawed - study, to say the least. But in these times of economic crisis, we're seeing a shift away from our consumeristic and materially-obsessed way of life by which this country defined itself for so long. If anything, that seems like a silver lining, so to speak, in the heavy cloud of serious recession and economic downfall. Personally, I'm curious as to how many of my fellow Gen-Yers are coping with the economic crisis' interference with "leaving the nest" and moving out into "the real world," with those of us newer to the workforce being regarded as even less ideal employees in a time where money and employment opportunities are tight, not generally having massive, attractive resumes.

You can check out the full ranking list here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good point, though sometimes it's hard to arrive to definite conclusions