Updated: Fri, 01 Mar 2013 22:37:49 GMT | By Michael B. Sauter, Alexander E. M. Hess and Samuel Weigley

America's happiest (and most miserable) states



Hawaii ranked highest among happy states, perhaps because of its warm weather, beaches and rainbows over Waikiki Beach in Honolulu.

Hawaii ranked highest among happy states, perhaps because of its warm weather, beaches and rainbows over Waikiki Beach in Honolulu.

According to a Gallup poll released Thursday, 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-beingtended 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.

Related: Looking for a bad time? Visit America's 'saddest,' 'most miserable' cities

Top five most happy states:

1. Hawaii

Well-being index score: 71.1

Life expectancy: 81.5 years (the highest)

Obesity: 25.7% (20th lowest)

Median household income: $61,821 (8th highest)

Adult population with high school diploma or higher: 90.6% (10th highest)

In Gallup’s 2012 well-being index, Hawaii performed better than any other state. It ranked first or second in five of the six categories that make up the index, and 14th in basic access to care. Hawaii’s residents reported being generally happier with their current lives than those of any other state. They were also a more optimistic group. More than two-thirds of Hawaiians reported not feeling stressed, compared to just 52.8 percent of West Virginians who could say that. A larger proportion of Hawaiians exercise than any state but Alaska, and residents also eat healthily and do not smoke. At the latest count, life expectancy at birth in the state was 81.5 years, by far the best in the country.

2. Colorado

Well-being index score: 69.7

Life expectancy: 79.9 years (9th highest)

Obesity: 18.7% (the lowest)

Median household income: $55,387 (15th highest)

Adult population with high school diploma or higher: 90.2% (15th highest)

Coloradans were among the most likely Americans to practice healthy behaviors, such as exercising regularly and eating fruits and vegetables. They were also among the least likely to smoke and among the most likely to report easy access to a safe place to exercise. Their healthy behavior appears to be paying off. Colorado was rated the best state for physical health in the United States, having some of the nation’s lowest rates of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity. Colorado residents were also among the nation’s healthiest emotionally, and they had high evaluations of their own lives.

3. Minnesota

Well-being index score: 68.9

Life expectancy: 80.9 years (2nd highest)

Obesity: 24.7% (13th lowest)

Median household income: $56,954 (11th highest)

Adult population with high school diploma or higher: 92.0% (2nd highest)

Gallup found that Minnesota had better emotional health than all but two states. Some 86 percent of Minnesotans reported they did not feel an excessive amount of sadness during the previous day, a higher percentage than all but one state. In addition, Minnesotans ranked third in the physical health category. Nearly 83 percent of survey respondents said they did not have health problems that prevented them from doing activities typical of their age group — a higher-percentage than any other state. According to the most recent data, Minnesotans had the second-highest life expectancy of any state. Also, more than 78 percent of respondents said poor health did not get in the way of their usual daily activities, a higher percentage than all but one state.

4. Utah

Well-being index score: 68.8

Life expectancy: 80.1 years (8th highest)

Obesity: 23.9% (6th lowest)

Median household income: $55,869 (14th highest)

Adult population with high school diploma or higher: 90.3% (14th highest)

Utah residents had higher evaluations of their present lives and higher expectations for the future than residents of nearly every other state. More than 55 percent of respondents were thriving, while less than 3 percent were considered to be suffering based on their assessments of their present and future quality of life. In addition to strong evaluations of their own lives, Utah residents had better emotional health and a higher quality of their work environment than residents of most other states. Nearly 70 percent of respondents told Gallup they had recently learned something new or interesting, a higher percentage than any other state.

5. Vermont

Well-being index score: 68.6

Life expectancy: 79.7 years (12th highest)

Obesity: 25.7% (20th lowest)

Median household income: $52,776 (19th highest)

Adult population with high school diploma or higher: 91.8% (4th highest)

Vermont residents display healthier behaviors than any other state in the U.S. For example, nearly 72 percent of Vermont residents told Gallup that they ate healthily all day during the previous day, a higher percentage than any other state except Rhode Island. In fact, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they had at least at least five or more servings of fruits and vegetables in four of the past seven days, a higher proportion than any other state. Nearly 60 percent of residents said they exercised for at least 30 minutes in three of the past seven days, a higher percentage than all but two other states. The state had among the lowest poverty rates in the country, which may help explain why Vermont residents reported having good access to most basic needs. The state had the second-smallest proportion of residents say they did not have enough money to feed their families.

The five most miserable states:

1. West Virginia

Well-being index score: 61.3

Life expectancy: 75.2 years (2nd lowest)

Obesity: 33.5% (the highest)

Median household income: $38,482 (2nd lowest)

Adult population with high school diploma or higher: 84.2% (12th lowest)

West Virginia residents’ well-being was the worst of all states. It scored dead last in three of the six categories: life evaluation, emotional health and physical health. The answers of West Virginians to questions in the physical health category were particularly alarming. It was the only state where more than 30 percent of residents were told by a physician or nurse that they had high cholesterol. In addition, nearly 40 percent of respondents were told they have high blood pressure, also the highest of all states. Unhealthy behaviors could be causing these problems. For instance, just 62.2 percent of West Virginians indicated they ate healthily the previous day, the fifth-lowest percentage of all states. Moreover, 31.4 percent of respondents indicated that they smoked, the highest percentage of all states. The state had the second-lowest median income in the U.S., and a very high proportion of those surveyed in the state reported not being able to afford food or medicine. West Virginians had the second-worst life expectancy at birth in the country.

2. Kentucky

Well-being index score: 62.7

Life expectancy: 76.2 years (7th lowest)

Obesity: 29.7% (6th highest)

Median household income: $41,141 (4th lowest)

Adult population with high school diploma or higher: 83.1% (6th lowest)

The state has one of the lowest proportions of adults with a high school degree, as well as the fourth-lowest median income in the country. Kentucky also ranked dead-last in terms of healthy behaviors. A mere 60.7 percent of respondents said they ate healthily the day before, by far the lowest of any state. Not surprisingly, Kentucky also ranked second from the bottom in terms of physical health. As many as 29 percent of people indicated they had health problems that prevented them from doing age-appropriate activities, a higher percentage than any state other than West Virginia. Kentucky also ranked second from the bottom in the life evaluation and emotional health categories.

3. Mississippi

Well-being index score: 63.6

Life expectancy: 74.8 years (the lowest)

Obesity: 32.2% (2nd highest)

Median household income: $36,919 (the lowest)

Adult population with high school diploma or higher: 81.1% (3rd lowest)

Mississippi ranked lower than any other state in Gallup’s basic access to necessities category. For instance, nearly 25 percent of state residents indicated they did not have enough money to buy food for themselves or their family at some point in the last 12 months, the highest percentage of all states. Such problems are likely due to the state’s high-poverty rate and overall low incomes. The state’s median household income of $36,919 was the lowest of all 50 states, and the poverty rate of 22.6 percent was the highest. The lack of basic access to necessities may partly help explain why Mississippi ranked sixth from the bottom in terms of physical health. More than 38 percent of residents indicated they were told by a doctor or nurse that they had high blood pressure, a higher percentage than any state except for West Virginia. In addition, 15.4 percent of residents were told they had diabetes, more than any other state.

4. Tennessee

Well-being index score: 64.0

Life expectancy: 76.2 years (8th lowest)

Obesity: 29.6% (7th highest)

Median household income: $41,693 (6th lowest)

Adult population with high school diploma or higher: 84.2% (12th lowest)

According to the FBI, Tennessee had the nation’s highest violent crime rate in 2011, at over 608.2 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. This likely affected the state’s rank in Gallup’s access to basic necessities category, which included a question about being able to walk alone at night safely. The state ranked 11th worst in the U.S. in that question. In addition, Tennesseans reported some of the most critical conditions when it came to their own working environments. They were also among the Americans most likely to report they had poor health behaviors, such as not eating well. Just less than 62 percent of Tennesseans indicated they ate healthily all day the day prior to being surveyed–worse than every state but Kentucky. Such unhealthy behavior potentially contributed to the state’s low scores for both emotional and physical health. Residents were among the nation’s most likely to reveal they felt sad or depressed, and also among the most likely to have high blood pressure or cholesterol.

5. Arkansas

Well-being index score: 64.1

Life expectancy: 76.1 years (6th lowest)

Obesity: 31.4% (3rd highest)

Median household income: $38,758 (3rd lowest)

Adult population with high school diploma or higher: 83.8% (8th lowest)

Arkansas ranked in the bottom 10 in all but one of the well-being categories. The state ranked fourth from the bottom in terms of physical health. A higher percentage of people were told they had cancer compared to any other state. More than 31 percent of respondents were clinically obese, a higher percentage than all but two states. Arkansas also ranked fourth from the bottom in healthy behaviors. Over 27 percent of the population indicated that they smoked, the fourth-highest rate of all states. The average life expectancy in the state was just over 76 years old, the sixth-lowest of all states. Good health could be impeded by the state’s low income. The state’s median household income of $38,758 in 2011 was the third lowest of all states.

See where your state ranks on the complete list.

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