Most people have a general understanding of the word “well-being.” When it comes to measuring wellbeing in a scientific way, however, difficulties arise in defining such a broad idea. As interest in holistic wellbeing continues to grow in our country, scientists are now facing those definition challenges head on. A research partnership recently completed qualitative study on the wellbeing of Americans. The results may not be entirely what you expect: in general there is a feeling of improvement in the quality of life, despite the fact that our physical well-being is stagnant or worsening.
So, what can we take away from all of this? The improvements we see are no doubt the result of education, policy change and personal choices that Americans are making in order to get back to a better state of well-being. Efforts like ours at WellnessWarrior and thousands of others in the governmental, non-profit, and private sectors seem to be helping.
The declines are indicative of the work that we still need to do.
Here’s a brief summary of the report’s findings:
Researchers at polling giant Gallup and the health-care company Healthways paired together in 2008 to develop Well-Being Index, a measurement of “the important aspects of how people feel about and experience their daily lives.” Over the last eight years they've conducted over 625,000 interviews to define some general trends. We can think of it as a general check-up for our country’s well-being. The results of this check-up, just like anything when it comes to health and aging, are nuanced. Niraj Chokshi of the New York Times quotes Dan Witters, research director of the study
“If you stick strictly to physical well-being, it’s a real mixed picture, and I think probably more negative than it is positive. If you broaden it, though, and look at things like declining uninsured rates, declining food insecurity, improving life evaluation, improving perspective on standard of living, those things are all trending up.”
Let’s start with the positive.
Our standard of living is improving. In 2008 73% of respondents reported satisfaction with their current standard of living and that number increased to 80% by 2016.
Our access to healthcare is improving. America's number of uninsured citizens has dropped from a peak of 17.3% to 10.4%, and fewer people than ever have trouble affording medical costs. Access may be getting better, but we are not, however, seeing improvement in healthcare quality or costs.
Lastly, “life evaluation” has improved (defined by Gallup as the state of current and future lives in terms of "thriving," "struggling" or "suffering"). 55.4% reporting thriving in 2016, versus 48.9% in 2008. (Unfortunately, African Americans, despite a big increase in life evaluation in 2010, had a downward trend to the norm by 2016.)
So...great! Most of us are happier about our health! But, we are not necessarily healthier.
Here’s the not-so-good news.
Instances of chronic disease are stagnant or worsening. Rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes are continuing to rise, and while 22.6% of people reported their health as “excellent” in 2008, only 19% reported this in 2016.
Health behaviors showed mixed results: Healthy eating has declined with only 64.2% of Americans reporting that they eat healthily on a daily basis, down from a high of 67.7% in 2010. In contrast, smoking rates have dropped by 3% since 2009 and regular exercise increased by 2.4%—although researchers still question the quality of Americans’ exercise: “According to the CDC, just 21% of U.S. adults are meeting the physical activity guidelines for both muscle-strengthening and aerobic activity.”
There’s work to be done...but the fight for wellness is showing real progress.
PHOTO: Thierry Baboulenne
Well-Being in the United States: The Obama Years – Gallup Healthways Poll via the Well-Being Index
Life Got Better Under Obama, According to Gallup via the NY Times