Are we happier in the West?

A new poll suggests Western states report a better sense of well-being, but neither prosperity not recession seem to be making most Americans happier.
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Is ours a happier landscape?

A new poll suggests Western states report a better sense of well-being, but neither prosperity not recession seem to be making most Americans happier.

A new Gallup study suggests that people in the Western United States have a much greater sense of well-being than other Americans. States that topped the feel-good list included Utah, Hawaii, and Wyoming, and strong results were also reported for Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, and California, among others. Well-being declines as you go east, with the lowest ratings in Kentucky, West Virginia, Mississippi, Ohio, Arkansas and Missouri. The well-being survey takes into account more than happiness, considering optimism, security, and health.

The research does suggest there is some correlation with affluence, but it's not exact. When looking at the well-being index by Congressional district, many of the wealthiest areas seem to be feeling pretty good, particularly in well-to-do cities and suburbs like Seattle and Bellevue, Portland, San Francisco, suburban Atlanta and the Silicon Valley. In Washington, the 8th and 1st Congressional Districts are doing the best. On the other hand, well-being isn't exactly correlated to economic performance. Some of the highest index scores are in states with high rates of unemployment (California, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina).

Gallup also has found that America's mental health scores are going down with the stock market, almost literally. USA Today reports that stress is up and that the most stressful days in 2008 were in the fourth quarter as the market struggled and Christmas sales tanked. They reported that people's moods literally dropped on days when the Dow was down. States with wide-open spaces and sunshine did better than the Rust Belt in terms of emotional health. The least happy groups: Latinos and the poor.

But even in good times, the nation's "happiness" overall has taken a drubbing since the 1950s. Growth and material prosperity have actually lowered our happiness scores. In his 2007 book, Deep Economy, Bill McKibben reports that despite a large and affluent middle class, "all that material progress — and all the billions of barrels of oil and millions of acres of trees that it took to create it — seems not to have moved the satisfaction meter an inch." For example, he writes, "In 1946, the United States was the happiest country among four advanced economies; thirty years later it was eight among eleven advanced countries. A decade after that it ranked tenth among 23 nations, many of them from the third world...." And social psychologist David Myers reports that:

Since 1957, the number of Americans who say they are "very happy" has declined slightly, from 35 to 30 percent. We are twice as rich and no happier. Meanwhile, the divorce rate has doubled, the teen suicide rate has more than doubled, and increasingly our teens and young adults are plagued by depression.

I have called this soaring wealth and shrinking spirit "the American paradox." More than ever, we at the end of the last century were finding ourselves with big houses and broken homes, high incomes and low morale, secured rights and diminished civility. We were excelling at making a living but too often failing at making a life. We celebrated our prosperity but yearned for purpose. We cherished our freedoms but longed for connection. In an age of plenty, we were feeling spiritual hunger.

These facts of life lead us to a startling conclusion: Our becoming better off materially has not made us better off psychologically.

It seems that some level of prosperity does relate to our well-being, and that the stress of recession and depression will take a toll on it, particularly among those who can least afford it. On the other hand, what is the secret of Utah, Wyoming and Hawaii? Is it really wide-open spaces and sunshine? Or does it have also to do with community, faith, and family values? Certainly one thing Utah, Wyoming and Hawaii share is a sense of separation from the rest of the county and all have a high percentage of Mormons, people girded with strong social networks and a practical approach to preparing for hard times.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.