Add HEALTH to the Dow

The average “well-being index” of the United States dropped 0.2 points for the month of November. While there was a half-point increase in the subcategory “life evaluation,” the “work environment” division fell by an entire point.[1]

Excuse me–did national health just get compared to a stock market index, like the Dow Jones?

Yes, an abstract idea such as happiness is being quantitatively measured. These numbers come from a recently developed project called the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. As the name suggests, the Index is a collaborative venture between Gallup, Inc.–the makers of the ubiquitous Gallup Polls–and Healthways, Inc., a provider of numerous health management programs. Their goal, though ambitious, has good intentions: compile the largest database of health research so that communities, employers, and legislators can create policies that will best improve people’s welfare.[2]

Gallup collects its data by conducting 1000 phone interviews nationwide at the end of each day. Respondents are asked questions relating to six categories: life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior, work environment, and basic access to healthcare.[3] Sample questions may include how the respondent expects life to be five years later or if the respondent felt healthy enough to go about the day. Responses are then sorted by demographic factors to help policy makers form programs tailored to a particular population or region.

Gallup-Healthways acknowledges the flaws in the procedure; the nature of a survey innately suffers from bias in the wording of questions, untruthful responses, and nonresponse. However, the sampling method controls for variables it can, such as using random digit dialing for both landline and cell phones, and conducting the survey in the language of the household.[4] Regardless of the factors affecting data collection, the final result is the same. After analyzing each day’s 1000 interviews, an average point value is calculated for each of the six categories, along with the amount of change from prior measurements. The entire average becomes the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index and is published monthly.

Despite its weaknesses, Gallup’s survey is the largest and most developed of its kind. Therefore, the results of the index scores are viable indications of trends in America’s view of its own welfare. Gallup-Healthways could not have chosen a more perfect time to begin a happiness tracking meter, especially in today’s difficult economy.

The United States officially declared a recession in December 2008–the worst since the Great Depression, claim economists.[5]As the number of unemployed Americans and foreclosed homes grows, it is difficult to see any reason for the index to display positive results of happiness and health.

How about that American Dream? Can Horatio Alger even bring up the idea of “rags to riches” in times like these when many are barely getting by?

Gustavo Arellano, an editor for the Los Angeles Times, represents one of the major attitudes regarding the Dream. He claims that his parents, two immigrants who began their quest for the Dream in the 1980s, are better equipped for success than the young adults of the current generation are. They bought a house when mortgage was affordable; they learned a diverse set of practical, vocational skills and thus possessed flexibility in the jobs they could hold. On the other hand, Arellano has a master’s degree under his belt and still struggles to pay rent for his one-bedroom apartment. But he is on the fortunate side. Arellano comments how his peers still live with their parents or friends.[6] At this time, it is difficult finding jobs to put university degrees to practice. Consequently, many students opt to stay in school and continue their education until the economy recovers.

Achieving the ideal Dream is not entirely out of the picture, but the recession has certainly pushed it farther from reach. Finding success in today’s circumstances may require extra time and more sacrifice to either develop more skills or conjure up an appealing, entrepreneurial idea.

Despite additional challenges, multiple poll results still point towards a common sentiment. The majority of respondents continue to believe the Dream can be achieved.[7] According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, the scores since May 2009 have been higher than those of the corresponding months in 2008, when the nation’s economy had not yet taken a fall.[8] Another poll conducted by the New York Times and CBS News reported that 44% of respondents believed they had reached the American Dream this year.[9] Surprisingly, this percentage is greater than the 32% who thought they had succeeded four years ago.[10]

How do we explain an increase in reported happiness and well-being during times of trouble?

People are collectively changing their definition of the American Dream and lowering their standards during more meager times.[11] One of the questions in the New York Times and CBS News survey asked what the American Dream meant. No matter how many different types of answers people give, responses can usually be categorized into either financial and occupational security or patriotic values such as freedom and opportunity. Four years ago, 19% of respondents said the Dream was about the tangible rewards of financial security, while 20% chose the intangible ideals. This year, 11% chose money, as opposed to the 27% who valued American ideas.[12]

It is a rational phenomenon. Why hope to achieve something that is quickly disappearing and becoming harder to find? This curious relationship between increased ratings of happiness and tougher economic times highlights a potential blemish in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. The poll, like any other, completely depends on each respondent’s outlook on her health and happiness. Undoubtedly this is a highly subjective attempt to measure the nation’s overall quality of living.

Therefore, all that the well-being project does is reflect collective changes in attitude among Americans. The direction of change illustrated by index scores plotted over time is not always accurate either, or at least does not conform to what logic would dictate. For instance, the monthly index reports currently indicate that people are increasingly satisfied with their level of health and happiness, even though external conditions, such as the economy, do not support such a trend. It is far more probable and realistic that the true morale of Americans is in a downward spiral, contrary to what Gallup’s data suggest. The Well-Being Index may be publishing information that is excessively skewed with optimism because it is influenced by confounding factors that are subjectively determined. An example of such influences is the change in standards for people to feel content.

Or, perhaps it is true that Americans are gradually learning to remain happy with fewer commodities and luxuries. That would truly be an improvement for our commercialist tendencies.

References
1.    Jim Harter, Dan L. Witters, James E. Pope, and Amy Neftzger. Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Gallup, Inc. and Healthways, Inc. November 1, 2009. http://www.well-beingindex.com (accessed November 17, 2009).
2.    Ibid.
3.    Ibid.
4.    Ibid.
5.    Katharine Q. Seelye. What Happens to the American Dream in a Recession? The New York Times. May 7, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/08/us/08dreampoll.html?_r=1 (accessed November 15, 2009).
6.    Gustavo Arellano. The Arellanos of Anaheim. The Los Angeles Times. March 11, 2009. http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-arellano11-2009mar11,0,417418.story (accessed November 16, 2009).
7.    John Zogby. The American Dream Is Still Strong. Forbes.com LLC. January 29, 2009. http://www.forbes.com/2009/01/28/american-dream-polling-opinions-columnists_0129_john_zogby.html (accessed November 14, 2009).
8.    Harter, Witters, Pope, and Neftzger, Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.
9.    The New York Times, CBS News. “American Dream Poll.” The New York Times. May 7, 2009. http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/national/20090507_american_dream_poll.pdf (accessed November 16, 2009).
10.    Seelye, What Happens to the American Dream in a Recession?.
11.    Ibid.
12.    The New York Times and CBS News, “American Dream Poll.”

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