Special Report

America's Happiest (and Most Miserable) States

Little Rock , Arkansas
Source: Thinkstock

46. Arkansas
> Poverty rate: 19.1% (4th highest)
> Unemployment rate: 5.2% (24th highest)
> Obesity rate: 34.5% (6th highest)
> Pct. of adults w/ bachelor’s degree: 21.8% (3rd lowest)

According to Gallup, Arkansas residents are less likely to report financial well-being than those in most states. The state’s lower incomes and high poverty rate likely explains this. The typical household in the state earns just $41,995 a year, and 19.1% of residents live in poverty, the second worst and fourth worst rates in the country, respectively.

The state’s low incomes and high poverty are likely at least partially due to the state’s low educational attainment rate. Just 21.8% of state adults have a bachelor’s degree, the third lowest proportion of any state. The lack of higher education may also explain the state’s poor overall well-being in other ways. A college education can help provide a sense of control and purpose for many people. State adults report the highest average number of days of poor mental health each month, at 4.7, a full day more than the U.S. average.

Wind Farm, Highway, Indiana
Source: Thinkstock

47. Indiana
> Poverty rate: 14.5% (25th highest)
> Unemployment rate: 4.8% (20th lowest)
> Obesity rate: 31.3% (15th highest)
> Pct. of adults w/ bachelor’s degree: 24.9% (9th lowest)

Indiana is one of just a handful of states to rank worse in every category of well-being — sense of purpose, social life, financial health, community pride, and physical fitness — than most other states. An estimated 31.3% of adults in the state are obese, 29.4% do not exercise, and 30.6% smoke, each higher the corresponding national shares.

Having a college education can have many positive effects on well-being. In Indiana, just 24.9% of adults have at least a bachelor’s degree, one of the smallest shares of any state. A shallow talent pool may be one reason behind the state’s low median household income, which at $50,532 is approximately $5,000 less than the national median income.

Louisville at dusk, Kentucky
Source: Thinkstock

48. Kentucky
> Poverty rate: 18.5% (5th highest)
> Unemployment rate: 5.4% (20th highest)
> Obesity rate: 34.6% (5th highest)
> Pct. of adults w/ bachelor’s degree: 23.3% (5th lowest)

On the whole, Kentucky has one of the least healthy populations of any state, and well-being among many residents likely suffers as a result. Adults in the state report feeling physically unhealthy an average of five days every month, second worst of any state, and more than a full day longer than the national average. More than one in four state residents smokes, and about a third lead sedentary lifestyles, the highest and fourth highest proportions in the country. These unhealthy behaviors likely contribute to the state’s poor health outcomes. Kentucky has the second highest incidence of heart disease and the highest rate of cancer deaths in the country.

In addition to poor physical health, Kentucky also compares worse than other states in matters of mental health. The state has a higher than average suicide rate, and adults report a higher average number of days in poor mental health each month.

Beaver County, Oklahoma
Source: Thinkstock

49. Oklahoma
> Poverty rate: 16.1% (13th highest)
> Unemployment rate: 4.2% (15th lowest)
> Obesity rate: 33.9% (8th highest)
> Pct. of adults w/ bachelor’s degree: 24.6% (8th lowest)

Adults in Oklahoma report an average of 4.1 poor mental health days a month, slightly more than the 3.7 days reported by the average American adult. Perhaps even more telling of poor well-being across the state is its suicide rate. There are an average of 19.3 suicides per 100,000 Oklahoma residents a year, far higher than the 13.4 suicides per 100,000 people nationwide.

For many Oklahoma residents, well-being is undermined by poor health behaviors and outcomes. About one in every three adults in the state get no exercise beyond leaving the house to go to work, nearly the highest physical inactivity rate of any state. Additionally, 22.2% of Oklahoma adults are smokers, well above the 17.5% national smoking rate. Unhealthy behaviors such as these likely play a considerable role in the state’s high cardiovascular-related death rate. There are about 326 deaths from cardiovascular-related health issues, such as heart attacks or strokes, for every 100,000 state residents annually, the third highest rate of any state.

Farm in Winter with View of Mountains, West Virginia
Source: Thinkstock

50. West Virginia
> Poverty rate: 17.9% (7th highest)
> Unemployment rate: 6.7% (the highest)
> Obesity rate: 35.6% (2nd highest)
> Pct. of adults w/ bachelor’s degree: 19.6% (the lowest)

West Virginia has the worst overall well-being of any state in the country, and a review of conditions in the state reveals why. A college education and a stable job can each provide a sense of purpose in life, but West Virginia has the highest unemployment rate and the lowest college attainment rate of any state. Indeed, West Virginians surveyed by Gallup reported having the lowest sense of purpose of all states.

West Virginians are also far more likely to be in poor health than those in other states. Adults in the state report an average of 5.5 days each month of being in poor physical health, 0.5 days longer than the next worst state. The state has the highest incidence of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks, the highest rate of overdose deaths, and the highest share of adults who report being in frequent mental and physical distress.

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