Americans are a diverse lot, so it’s no surprise they give different answers when asked about their well-being. But it seems that well-being differs from state to state, too. In the latest Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which gauges the physical and emotional health of people in all 50 states, residents of Hawaii reported the best sense of overall well-being while West Virginia residents reported the worst.
“Sure,” you might say, “Who wouldn’t be happier in Hawaii?” As a graduate of West Virginia University, I admit that there were times as a student in Morgantown when I longed for sunshine and balmy breezes instead of gray winter days and rural towns covered in coal dust (although I loved my school and I loved those country roads). But well-being is not a simple matter of palm trees versus coal mines.
The index calculates overall well-being based on six quality of life categories, each of which is made up of several components:
- Life evaluation (are you thriving, struggling, or suffering?)
- Emotional health (such as happiness, worry, being treated with respect, stress)
- Work environment (such as job satisfaction or supervisor’s treatment)
- Physical health (such as obesity, feeling well rested, sickness)
- Healthy behaviors (such as not smoking, eating healthy food, exercising frequently)
- Basic access (such as to clean water, medicine, enough money for food, shelter, healthcare)
Poll respondents in Hawaii had the highest scores in the emotional health and work environment indexes, and were most likely to say they were thriving. People in West Virginia were most likely to say they were not thriving, and had the worst emotional health, the worst health habits, the most diagnoses of depression, and high rates of obesity. People in the other 50 states fell in between. Check out how your state fared online.
Do people in low well-being states, like West Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas, have to stay that way? Is it hard to change?
“There’s good news and bad news about our ability to change our sense of well-being or happiness,” says Dr. Ronald D. Siegel, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “It turns out that, just like for weight, we have genetically determined happiness set-points. So if we’re not taking steps to improve our sense of well-being, we tend to gravitate back to the same level.” Depending on your genes, that level may be pretty happy or pretty unhappy, says Dr. Siegel, who is also the faculty editor of Positive Psychology, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.
About 40% of what determines happiness is under our control. In contrast, only about 10% has to do with good and bad fortune. “It’s not mostly events, but our responses to events, that determines our level of well-being,” says Dr. Siegel.
He offers several steps you can take to improve your emotional well-being, no matter what state you’re in:
1. Live in the moment. When you’re fully engaged in activities, you will enjoy them more and be less preoccupied by concerns about the past and the future.
2. Be grateful. Keeping a daily gratitude journal promotes positive feelings, optimism, life satisfaction, and connectedness with others.
3. Do things for others. Happiness comes most reliably from connecting with others and not being overly self-focused. Try to do things that benefit someone or something other than yourself.
4. Take inventory of your strengths, then apply them in new ways in your daily life. For example, if you count curiosity as a strength, read about a new subject. If you consider yourself brave, try something that makes you nervous, such as public speaking.
5. Savor pleasure. Reminisce about good times, celebrate good moments with others, be happy when you accomplish something.
Overall well-being also includes physical health. People who reported experiencing overall better health, such as those who live in Hawaii, Colorado, Minnesota, Utah, and Vermont, tend to exercise more, smoke less, and like their jobs more than folks in other states.
If poor health or unhealthy behaviors are dragging down your well-being, addressing these issues is one way to improve well-being. That may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to.
“Two-thirds of all illness is the result of our lifestyle choices,” says Dr. Edward Phillips, founder and director of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard Medical School. The Institute is dedicated to teaching health care professionals how to help their patients make healthy changes.
Dr. Phillips shared some of the key tips that help improve health one small step at a time:
1. Take responsibility for your health. That means going to your doctor and actually following his or her advice.
2. Apply your personal strengths to your health. If you’re a disciplined, organized professional, what can you apply from your work life to the change you want to make now?
3. Come up with reasonable and small first goals. “Find something that’s a 2% change, like walking ten minutes a day. Go for a walk at lunch, walk while you’re talking on the phone. What’s the smallest change you can make and be confident you can do it? I’ve met very few patients who can’t do that,” says Dr. Phillips, who is also the faculty editor for Simple Changes, Big Rewards, another Harvard Medical School report.
4. Be accountable for your changes. You’ll do much better if you track and report your progress to a loved one or friend, or to a program on a website or an app.
5. Pay attention to the benefits. The value of the change, such as sleeping better from exercising, can become the motivation to continue that change and make others. When you see that change is possible, you’ll be encouraged to make more changes.
Is it really that simple? Make a small change and your well-being will improve? “Absolutely,” says Dr. Phillips. “People can make reasonable changes and achieve them. And then improved behavior begets improved behavior.”
That’s a plan that can rank high on anyone’s list.