America’s Happiest (and Most Miserable) States

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Detailed Findings & Methodology

In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Dan Witters, research director of the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, identified sense of purpose as the clearest indicator of overall well-being. “If I had to pick one of the five elements to start with and build from scratch, it would be purpose.” Sense of purpose correlates with overall well-being more than any of the other four elements. This is likely because sense of purpose determines so many other factors in an individual’s life.

“Are you learning and growing? Are you reaching goals? Are you in a role where you’re able to use your natural strengths every day?” Witters explained. Individuals with a strong sense of purpose are more likely to have higher incomes, be in better physical shape, have ties to their community, and have strong social relationships.

Another of the five elements of well-being is financial security. Statements such as “You have enough money to do everything you want to do,” and “In the last seven days, you have worried about money,” which participants agree or disagree with on a scale of 1 to 5, give an insight into how well individuals manage their economic life to reduce stress and increase financial security. Financial security is highly correlated with external factors such as income and cost of living. Of the 25 states reporting the highest degrees of financial security, 20 have median household incomes greater than the national median income of $57,617 when adjusted for cost of living.

Connection to one’s community is another important element in overall well-being. Survey respondents were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as “You are proud of your community,” and “You always feel safe and secure,” on a scale of 1 to 5 to give an indication of how much they like where they live, feel safe, and have pride in their community. One factor that can significantly erode an individual’s bond with his or her community is crime. Of the 15 states with the strongest sense of community, 13 have lower violent crime rates than the national rate, and 10 have lower property crime rates as well.

Unemployment is also one of the major external factors that correlates with overall well-being. “Having a job is better for your well-being than not having a job if you need one,” Witters said. A large number of residents with high well-being can also attract new industry to a given area, which can in turn help keep unemployment low. “States that have high well-being residents are attractive places for would-be employers because their workers perform better and have fewer unplanned absences,” Witters said. All 10 of the states with the highest overall well-being have unemployment rates below the national unemployment rate for 2016 of 4.9%.

According to Witters, factors that highly correlate with overall well-being also include educational attainment, motor vehicle deaths, driving under the influence, and teen pregnancies.

To determine America’s happiest and most miserable states, 24/7 Wall St. analyzed the results of the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index. States were ranked based on their overall Well-Being Index score. Survey results from Gallup were paired with other socioeconomic data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the FBI, and other sources. Data on median household income, college and high school attainment, commuting patterns, poverty, households earning less than $10,000 and households earning more than $200,000, and income inequality came from the Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey. Data on unemployment came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is an annual average for 2016. Data on regional price parity came from the Bureau of Economic Statistics and is for 2015. Data on violent crime and property crime came from the FBI’s 2016 Uniform Crime Report. Data on physical inactivity, access to physical activity locations, premature mortality, and children in single-parent households came from the 2017 edition of County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, a joint program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. All data are for the most recent period available.