A woman at a homeless encampment in Anaheim, California
A woman at a homeless encampment in Anaheim, California Jae C. Hong/AP

Even with the economy humming, Americans are feeling more anxious, depressed, and dissatisfied with their lives than they did in 2009.

America these days is not a happy place. Even though the economy is up, polarization is at an all-time high, and a feeling of malaise, or worse, grips the nation.

Our happiness, or what researchers refer to as “subjective well-being,” is down across the nation, according to a detailed study by the Gallup Organization and the healthcare information service Sharecare. The study takes into account survey results from more than 2.5 million Americans. It examines how people feel in their day-to-day lives across key dimensions of well-being, including physical health and wellness; having supportive personal and family relationships; financial and economic security; having a sense of purpose; and connection to one’s community.

Despite some gains in specific categories, the overall results show a nation where well-being is in sharp decline. From 2016 to 2017, America saw its largest year-over-year drop in well-being in the 10 years that Gallup has tracked these data. Furthermore, 21 states registered absolute declines in their levels of well-being, and not a single state showed a statistically significant improvement in 2017.

(Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index)

The map above, from the study, charts the level of well-being for the 50 states. A broad unhappiness belt (indicated in red) stretches from the Rust Belt states of Ohio and Indiana down into West Virginia (the state with the very lowest level of well-being) further south into Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Nevada and Rhode Island also show very low rates of well-being. Conversely, a relative happiness belt stretches across the Mountain states, including the Dakotas, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Colorado. Vermont, New Hampshire, and Hawaii also show high rates of well-being.

(Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index)

The map below shows the states that have experienced the sharpest declines in well-being year over year. People in these states reported increased depression, increased daily physical pain, increased day-to-day worry, declines in “positive energy” from family and friends, and declining satisfaction with their standard of living, among other things. The 21 states that reported declines span the Sunbelt, Rust Belt, and West Coast, as the map shows. Interestingly, these states do not seem to have much in common: They include wealthier, healthier states as well as some of the poorest and least healthy states.

States that saw significant declines in well-being in 2017. No state saw a statistically significant increase. (Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index)

Not all the news is bad, however. A number of physical-health metrics, like not smoking and engaging in regular exercise, are up. And more than half of respondents say they are “thriving”—more than ever before. What we could be seeing is a growing inequality of well-being that mirrors the country’s rising economic and spatial inequality.

So what factors might help explain this dip, and divide, across the 50 states?

To assess this, my colleague Charlotta Mellander ran two sets of correlations: the first on economic, demographic, social, and political factors that are associated with levels of well-being today, and the second on the factors that are associated with the change in the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index between 2009 and 2017. As usual, I want to point out that correlation does not equal causation, but point only to associations between variables. Human health and happiness are complex phenomena influenced by an infinite number of factors.

Still, her results provide some interesting additional perspective on the trends and patterns of well-being in America.

Category Correlate
Median income .35
College grads .57
Creative class .38
Working class -.48
Income inequality -.31
Population below the poverty line -.59
Black population -.48
Median home value .43
Approve of Trump -.29
Disapprove of Trump .31
Very religious population -.38
Bohemian population .44
Exercise regularly .51

Let’s start with overall level of well-being. The connection between happiness and well-being has been reported in many studies, and we find it true of states as well as individuals. Well-being is moderately correlated with income levels. That said, there is no statistically significant association between productivity—the underlying determinant of the wealth of states—and levels of well-being.

Education, on the other hand, appears to have a close association to the well-being of states. The correlation between state well-being and the share of adults that are college grads is among the highest in our analysis.

Well-being is also associated with the nature of state economies. It is positively associated with states with more knowledge-based economies (measured as the share of knowledge, professional, and creative workers), and even more negatively associated with states with blue-collar, working-class economies.

Inequality also plays a role: Happiness has a modest negative association with income inequality. Poverty plays a bigger role, with a stronger negative correlation between well-being and the share of the population living below the poverty line. Race plays a role, too; happiness is negatively associated with the share of the population that is black.

For all the talk among urbanists about high and escalating housing costs, happiness is actually higher in states where housing values are higher. This is likely because those states also tend to have higher income levels, and perhaps because many homeowners there have experienced greater appreciation of home values and are therefore more financially secure.

America’s political divide plays a role as well. You might think that states that went for Trump would be happier this year than those that went for Clinton. But that’s not what we find across states. Well-being is actually higher in states where more people disapprove of the president, and lower in states where more people approve of Trump.

There is a similar pattern when it comes to indicators of America’s cultural divide. Well-being is lower in more religious states, and higher in states with a larger concentration of artists, musicians, writers, and other “bohemians.” It is also higher in states where people exercise more and are more fit.

One thing that doesn’t factor in is the level of urbanity. We find no statistically significant associations whatsoever between happiness and the level of urbanity (whether measured as the urban share of population or urban land area).

Do the declines in well-being in 2017 represent a one-off aberration, or are they indicative of a larger trend? You’d expect happiness to rebound in a period that saw the economy recover from the Great Recession. In fact, the opposite happened. When we compared Gallup’s data on well-being to the Gallup data from 2009, we found that well-being actually declined in all 50 states between 2009 and 2017. What’s more, these declines are concentrated in the very states that had higher levels of well-being in 2009.

Category Correlate
Share of population in poverty .41
Mean income -.34
Urban share of population -.28
Human capital -.34
Well-being in 2009 -.75

Many of the defining divides of American society do not appear to have a statistically significant bearing on changes in well-being in recent years, including the political divide, racial divides, or whether a state has a knowledge-based or blue-collar economy.

So what does matter to the change in well-being over time?

Income, for one, but not in the direction you might think. Higher-income states have experienced a greater decline in well-being. The same pattern holds for education, and for more urban states. The more affluent and the more urban a state is, the greater the decline in its net well-being. Conversely, states with higher levels of poverty are associated with a positive change in well-being over this time frame.

In fact, the decline in America’s happiness has been concentrated in the states that had the highest levels of happiness back in 2009. The scatter graph below shows this clearly, comparing the change in well-being from 2009 to 2017 to the level of well-being in 2009. The line slopes steeply down and to the right, indicating that states like Utah, Hawaii, and Iowa, which had among the highest well-being back in 2009, have seen the steepest drops. This correlation is the largest in our analysis by far (a whopping -0.75).

(Charlotta Mellander)

The Gallup polls, and our own analysis of them, paint a picture of a nation that is divided on happiness. In the here and now, this cleavage follows the same economic, political, and class divides that polarize our nation. Over a broader time frame, our subjective well-being has declined across the board in each and every state, even as the economy has sprung back to life. America is growing increasingly unhappy and the trend toward unhappiness is concentrated in the places that used to be among the very happiest. Whatever the reasons, America’s collective psyche is clearly suffering today.

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