Special Report

America's Happiest (and Most Miserable) States

America’s well-being remains generally unchanged from 2014. Some significant changes, however, have occurred over the past eight years. Nearly across the board, Americans are more likely to have health insurance, exercise more, and are less likely to smoke than they were in 2008.

To capture Americans’ general well-being, Gallup surveyed 177,281 people to build the Well-Being Index. The index measures whether individuals feel a sense of purpose, have supportive relationships, are financially secure, are satisfied with the community in which they live, and are in good health.

24/7 Wall St. matched Gallup’s ranking with data on health habits and outcomes, educational attainment, crime, and several other economic measures. This year, Hawaii overtook Alaska as the state with the highest well-being, while West Virginia had the lowest reported well-being for the seventh year in a row.
While Gallup’s ranking is based on subjective responses, states’ well-being scores tend to correlate strongly with several objective measures of health, economy, educational attainment, and community. In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Dan Witters, research director at the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, explained that over the eight years the survey has been conducted, there are several predictable patterns.

Click here to see America’s happiest (and most miserable) states.

According to Witters, “if you look at the high well-being states… folks that live there generally take better care of themselves.” Indeed, in 13 of the 15 states with the lowest reported well-being, a smaller than average share of adults exercise regularly. Unhealthy behavior leads to negative outcomes, and 13 of those same 15 states also have a larger share of adults with high blood pressure compared to the country as a whole. Similarly, of the 15 states with the highest reported well-being, 12 are home to an adult population more likely to exercise than the nation’s adult population. Witters confirmed that residents of states with high-well being are less likely to suffer from a variety of health issues, including high blood pressure. Indeed, 12 of the 15 happiest states have a smaller share of adults with high blood pressure than the country as a whole.

There is also a strong correlation with educational attainment and overall well-being. The states with more educated populations do not necessarily have the highest overall well-being. The states that have especially low shares of college-educated adults, however, tend to report very poor well-being. The college attainment rate in each of the 10 worst ranked states is lower than the 30.1% national rate. In West Virginia, the lowest scoring state on the well-being index, only 19.2% of adults have a bachelor’s degree, the smallest share of any state in the country.

Similarly, while the correlation between higher incomes and overall happiness is not especially strong, it is clear that it is much more difficult to maintain happiness below a certain level of wealth. The median income in each of the 10 states with the lowest levels of well-being is less than the $53,657 the typical American household earns annually. Similarly, eight of the 10 states with the lowest levels of well-being have a higher poverty rate than the 15.5% national rate. Witters confirmed that “a big distinguisher between high well-being populations and low well-being populations is hav[ing] enough money to do everything that you want to do.”

There is also a strong regional pattern among states reporting the highest and lowest level of well-being. Many of the highest ranking states are in the Western U.S., particularly the Rocky Mountain States. Meanwhile, the states with the lowest sense of well-being tend to be in the South and Midwest.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed all 50 U.S. states based on their scores in the Gallup-Healthways 2015 Well-Being Index. Gallup-Healthways calculated a national well-being score as well as one for each state based on interviews conducted between January 2 and December 30, 2015, with a random sample of 177,281 adults. As part of the rank, Gallup combined five separate essential elements of well-being. In addition to the index, 24/7 Wall St. considered data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey, including median household income, poverty rates, and adult educational attainment rates. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we reviewed 2015 annual state unemployment rates and 2014 average hours worked among private nonfarm workers. We also reviewed 2014 obesity and teen pregnancy rates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Incidence of heart disease in 2014 is from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The share of the population with low incomes and low access to healthy food comes from the Department of Agriculture’s Food Environment Atlas. Low access is defined as living more than one mile from a supermarket in an urban area or more than 10 miles from a supermarket in a rural area. We also considered state violent crime rates in 2014 from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report Program. Lastly, we used 2013 regional price parity from the Bureau of Economic Analysis as a proxy for cost of living. All other data come from the United Health Foundation’s 2015 report “America’s Health Rankings”.

These are America’s happiest (and most miserable) states.