Objectives Well-being is a holistic, positively framed conception of health, integrating physical, emotional, social, financial, community and spiritual aspects of life. High well-being is an intrinsically worthy goal for individuals, communities and nations. Multiple measures of well-being exist, yet we lack information to identify benchmarks, geographical disparities and targets for intervention to improve population life evaluation in the USA.
Design Using data from the Gallup National Health and Well-Being Index, we conducted retrospective analyses of a series of cross-sectional samples.
Setting/participants We summarised select well-being outcomes nationally for each year, and by county (n=599) over two time periods, 2008–2012 and 2013–2017.
Main outcome measures We report percentages of people thriving, struggling and suffering using the Cantril Self-Anchoring Scale, percentages reporting high or low current life satisfaction, percentages reporting high or low future life optimism, and changes in these percentages over time.
Results Nationally, the percentage of people that report thriving increased from 48.9% in 2008 to 56.3% in 2017 (p<0.05). The percentage suffering was not significantly different over time, ranging from 4.4% to 3.2%. In 2013–2017, counties with the highest life evaluation had a mean 63.6% thriving and 2.3% suffering while counties with the lowest life evaluation had a mean 49.5% thriving and 6.5% suffering, with counties experiencing up to 10% suffering, threefold the national average. Changes in county-level life evaluation also varied. While counties with the greatest improvements experienced 10%–15% increase in the absolute percentage thriving or 3%–5% decrease in absolute percentage suffering, most counties experienced no change and some experienced declines in life evaluation.
Conclusions The percentage of the US population thriving increased from 2008 to 2017 while the percentage suffering remained unchanged. Marked geographical variation exists indicating priority areas for intervention.
- health policy
- public health
Data availability statement
The dataset used for this study is available on Dryad (doi:10.5061/dryad.fqz612jsf).
This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/.
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Strengths and limitations of this study
Using the largest longitudinal dataset on well-being of the US population, this study provides the first comprehensive report on national and county-level trends in thriving, struggling and suffering in the USA.
The study assesses change over time at national and county levels as well as county-level variation in multiple measures of well-being from 2008 through 2017.
Because non-response bias could threaten the representativeness of the data, Gallup applied sampling and weighting methods to manage non-response bias and produce data representative of the populations included in the study.
While the outcomes are subjective, self-reported outcomes, leaving the potential for responses to change over time in a way that is unrelated to underlying life evaluation, the measure employed, Cantril Self-Anchoring Scale, has been thoroughly tested for reliability and validity.
The county-level data are reported as 5-year aggregates for counties with at least 300 respondents in 5 years so that the results provide reliable estimates within the confines of each reporting period; of note, the counties included are home to more than three-quarters of the US population.
Well-being is a holistic assessment of life that integrates the physical, emotional, social, financial, community and spiritual aspects of life. High well-being is an intrinsically worthy goal for individuals, workplaces, communities and nations.1–5 Higher well-being is also associated with many desirable health and healthcare outcomes, such as longer life expectancy, better cardiovascular health, reduced risk of preterm delivery, lower acute care utilisation and healthcare spending.6–12 Higher well-being is also associated with better mental and emotional health.13 14
In recent years, increasing numbers of governments, health systems, workplaces and communities are targeting higher well-being as a priority outcome.15–24 In recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic and its social and economic consequences have additionally underscored the need for and value of a holistic approach to population health and well-being, as governments consider the public health and economic implications of their responses.21 In addition, there is early evidence that the pandemic has been associated with increases in worry and stress as well as dramatic decreases in thriving.25 26 As such, there is growing concern about the consequences of low or declining life evaluation, with recent evidence from the USA pointing to substantial population health ramifications that began prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, poorer emotional health and lower rates of thriving have been shown to be associated with higher rates of depression and mortality from overdose and suicide.14 27 The current global public health crisis and its sequelae exacerbate these risks, and makes a national measure of well-being particularly relevant to understanding how people in the USA are faring as policies that influence tradeoffs between health and other aspects of life are enacted.
Despite the growing interest in and concern for well-being across the USA, we lack the information necessary for identifying benchmarks, geographical disparities and targets for intervention. As the nation and its communities strive for recovery, knowing the recent trends and variation in well-being outcomes that preceded the pandemic could provide insights into what the nation has been able to achieve, where lower well-being and inequities in well-being already existed, and where improvement efforts may be focused. Multiple measures of well-being exist, with life evaluation and its categories of thriving, struggling and suffering being one of the most widely and frequently used. Accordingly, we report on one of the largest population level surveys of well-being over 10 years, using national data collected over a decade to describe the life evaluation of the US population from 2008 through 2017—categorised as thriving, struggling or suffering—and its components of current life satisfaction and future life optimism.3 28 29
We used data from the Gallup National Health and Well-Being Index (WBI) from January 2008 through December 2017. This index was named the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index from 2010 to 2015 and then the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index in 2016–2017. For this study, we used data from the Life Evaluation Index of the WBI, which was administered over all 10 years.
Gallup interviewed 1000 US adults daily from 2008 to 12 and 500 daily from 2013 to 2017. Gallup surveyed respondents from 50 states and the District of Columbia, using a dual-frame design, which included landline and cellphone numbers, with regional quotas set for each day/week.29 They conducted sampling using random-digit-dial methods. A structured sampling design allowed up to three scheduled or stratified call-backs, maximising the probability that harder-to-reach respondents were included in each sample. Gallup chose landline respondents at random within each household based on which member had the most recent birthday, while assuming one respondent per cell phone line. Each sample of national adults included a minimum quota of landline and cellphone respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within each region. In the 2008 data collection period, this percentage was 85% landline and 15% cellphone. By the 2017 data collection period, the cellphone percentage had grown to 70% of the daily sample, reflecting changes in US cellphone usage and the need to adequately represent cell-only users who are younger, more racially and ethnically diverse, lower income, more transient, and less likely to be married than their dual-use or landline-only counterparts. In any given year, about 35%–37% of all calls resulted in a live contact resulting in 26%–32% of candidates that agreed to be interviewed. Of those who agreed to be interviewed, full-interview completion rates ranged from 84% to 92%. Overall response rates averaged about 8%–13% over the full 10-year sampling period. Gallup conducted interviews in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking, representing approximately one-third of all Hispanic respondents. Non-English or Spanish-speaking persons, those with significant hearing loss and those without a phone were all excluded from inclusion in the survey, resulting in estimates that were projectable to about 95%–96% of the US adult population over this period.
For each annual sample, demographic weighting targets for the US were uniquely based on the most recently available Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement figures for the aged 18 and older US population, while phone status targets were based on the most recently available National Health Interview Survey.30 31 Population density targets were based on the most recent US Census. County-level weighting targets for 2008–2012 were based on 2011 Claritas demographic statistics and weighting targets for 2013–2017 were based on 2017 Claritas demographic statistics.
Each respondent was assigned to a FIPS area (ie, a county or county equivalent) using their self-reported ZIP code. ZIP codes that crossed county lines were mapped based on plurality of the population residing in that ZIP code. We used the most recently available demographic data from the US Census to characterise counties.32
Life evaluation was measured using the Cantril Self-Anchoring Scale,33 which consists of the following prompt and questions: Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you.1 On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?2 On which step do you think you will stand about 5 years from now? The first item measures current life satisfaction (CLS) and the second measures future life optimism (FLO).
Based on established practice, we categorised responses into three groups.34–36 Respondents with positive views of their current life situation (CLS ≥7) and positive views of the next 5 years (FLO ≥8) were categorised as thriving. Respondents with negative views of their current life situation (CLS <4) and negative views of the future life (FLO ≤4) were categorised as suffering. All other respondents are categorised as struggling.
We summarised outcomes nationally for each year from 2008 through 2017 and by county over two 5-year time periods, 2008–2012 and 2013–2017. We weighted each summary score to correct for unequal selection probability, non-response, and double coverage of landline and cellphone users in the two sampling frames. We also weighted samples to match the US population according to gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density and phone status (cellphone only, landline only, both and cellphone mostly). All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.
To examine trends in national life evaluation, we included all respondents each year. We calculated monthly percentages of the population thriving, struggling and suffering. We then estimated for each outcome an ARIMA model which accounted for correlation of 1 and 12 months and moving average effects to estimate mean monthly change over this 10-year period.37
For reporting county-level scores, we combined years 2008–2012 and 2013–2017 and excluded counties with fewer than 300 respondents in either of the two time periods. For each of the two time periods and each retained county, we calculated the same outcomes as described previously. In addition, for each outcome we classified each county according to whether it significantly improved, worsened or remained unchanged depending on whether the 95% CI for the change from 2008 to 2012 to 2013–2017 was above, below or included zero. Changes in each outcome were graphed using US county-level maps. We plotted 2013–2017 scores against 2008–2012 scores to illustrate the distribution of changes over time. We also report the 10 counties with the highest and lowest percentages thriving and suffering, respectively, and with the most improvement in thriving and suffering.
Patient and public involvement
This research was done without patient involvement. Patients were not invited to comment on the study design and were not consulted to develop patient relevant outcomes or interpret the results. Patients were not invited to contribute to the writing or editing of this document for readability or accuracy.
The Yale University institutional review board exempted the study (Protocol no. 1502015410). All data are retrospective and deidentified. All analyses were performed using Stata V.16 (StataCorp, College Station, TX) and SPSS V.22.0.
For national analyses, we included the 2 638 824 respondents who participated in the WBI from 2008 to 2017 (online supplemental table 1). For county-level analyses, we retained 599 counties with at least 300 respondents in each time period, an estimated 78% of the total US population (table 1).
US national well-being
From 2008 to 2017, the percentage of the national population categorised as thriving increased from 48.9% to 56.3% (p<0.05). The percentage thriving increased from 2008 to 2010, decreased in 2011 and then mostly increased from 2011 to 2017. Over this same time period, the percentage categorised as struggling decreased from 46.7% to 40.5%, while the percentage suffering remained unchanged, although with a downward trend from 4.4% to 3.2% that did not meet statistical significance. The time-series models that accounted for month-to-month and yearly correlation confirmed these trends with estimated monthly percentage increase in thriving (0.065, p<0.001), decrease in struggling (−0.060, p<0.001) and no statistically significant monthly change in suffering (−0.0059, p=0.506) (figure 1).
From 2008 to 2017, the percentage of the national population with high CLS (≥7) steadily increased from 63.6% to 66.5%, while the percentage with low CLS (≤4) steadily decreased from 10.7% to 9.5%. The percentage of the national population with high FLO (≥8) increased from 77.7% to 79.5%, while the percentage with low FLO (≤4) decreased from 9.2% to 8.3% (figure 2). The corresponding time series models found only the change in low CLS to be significant (−0.020, p=0.018).
US county well-being
Thriving, struggling and suffering
For the 2013–2017 time period, counties in the top decile for thriving had a mean of 63.6% of the population thriving with range from 61.1% to 69.6% (figure 3). These counties had mean percentage suffering of 2.3%, with a range of 0.6% to 5.3%. Counties in the top decile for suffering had a mean 6.5% of their population suffering, ranging from 5.4% to 10.6% suffering (figure 3). These counties had mean percentage thriving of 49.5%, with a range of 38.3% to 58.3%. The 10 counties with the highest percentage thriving and suffering, and the 10 counties with the lowest percentage thriving and suffering in 2013–2017 are listed in table 2.
From the 2008–2012 time period to the 2013–2017 time period, 145 counties (24.2%) experienced a statistically significant (p<0.05) increase in percentage thriving, and 6 (1.0%) experienced a decrease in the percentage thriving (figure 4). From the first to second time periods, 35 counties (5.8%) experienced a decrease in percentage suffering, and 16 counties (2.7%) experienced an increase in percentage suffering (figure 4). The 10 counties with the most improvement in thriving and the 10 counties with the most improvement in suffering from 2008 to 2012 to 2013–2017 are included in table 3.
Current life satisfaction
For the 2013 to 2017 time period, counties in the top decile for high CLS had a mean of 74.8% of the population with high CLS and 5.9% with low CLS. Counties in the bottom decile for high CLS had a mean of 59.4% of the population with high CLS and 13.9% with low CLS.
From the first to second time periods, 173 counties (28.9%) experienced an increase in the percentage of the population with high CLS, and 2 (0.3%) experienced a decrease in the percentage with high CLS (figure 4). From the first to the second time periods, 90 counties (15.0%) experienced a decrease in the percentage of the population with low CLS, and seven counties (1.2%) experienced an increase in the percentage with low CLS.
Future life optimism
For the 2013–2017 time period, counties in the top decile for high FLO had a mean of 85.2% of the population with high FLO and 5.1% with low FLO. Counties in the bottom decile for high FLO had a mean of 71.5% of the population with high FLO and 13.1% with low FLO.
Overall, FLO demonstrated less improvement from the first to second time period than CLS. From the first to second time periods, 51 counties (8.5%) experienced an increase in the percentage of the population with high FLO, and 5 (0.8%) experienced a decrease in the percentage with high FLO (figure 4). From the first to the second time periods, 31 counties (5.2%) experienced a decrease in the percentage of the population with low FLO, and 3 counties (0.5%) experienced an increase in the percentage with low FLO.
Using the largest longitudinal dataset on well-being of the US population, this is the first comprehensive report on US national and county-level trends in thriving, struggling and suffering. In 2017, 56.3% of the total US population was thriving and 3.2% suffering. Across the preceding 10-year period, an increasing percentage of the total US population reported to be thriving, while a decreasing percentage was struggling with no statistically significant change in percentage suffering. However, marked geographical variations in life evaluation, its components and their trends existed across counties. In the most recent time period, counties with the highest life evaluation had percentages thriving that were 30% greater on average than those in the lowest life evaluation counties. These lowest life evaluation counties also had percentages suffering that were nearly threefold the percentages suffering in the highest life evaluation counties. To further underscore the high degree of variation that existed, there was a more than 10-fold difference in suffering between the highest and lowest performing counties. Over these 10 years, while counties with the greatest improvements experienced 10%–15% increases in absolute percentages thriving or 3%–5% decreases in absolute percentages suffering, most counties experienced no change and some experienced declines in these metrics.
The increases in percentage thriving and percentage reporting high current life satisfaction for the nation merit attention.38 In studying cross-national variation, a recent international report on CLS noted six factors explained nearly three-quarters of variation in national CLS: gross domestic product per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and freedom from corruption.39 Indeed, trends in percentage thriving paralleled economic trends across our 10-year study period, as the national percentage thriving declined from late 2008 to mid-2009, concomitant with the most detrimental period of the Great Recession and consistently improved thereafter.40–42 However, this association between economic vitality and population thriving likely results from complex mechanisms among multiple factors, including the social determinants of well-being. These mechanisms likely contributed to recent declines in well-being observed in the US during the global pandemic, as social support, healthy life expectancy and freedom to make life choices have been negatively impacted by public health precautions associated with the pandemic. A recent publication from Gallup reported that during the first months of the pandemic, March through April 2020, the percentage of the US population thriving has decreased by nearly nine points since the start of 2020, from 55.3% to 46.4%, equivalent to the lowest point of the Great Recession in 2008.26 Further study assessing trends over this period of time in determinants of well-being, such as social support and healthy life expectancy, may shed additional light on factors that influence population well-being.
Prior to the pandemic, important disparities in well-being outcomes existed, despite the increasing percentage thriving for the nation as a whole. In 2017, nearly 44% of the adult US population was still not thriving, leaving substantial room for continued improvement. The geographical variation in percentage thriving likewise points to key equity gaps that require attention. While variation in local economies likely contributes to some of the observed variation in life evaluation, factors outside of the economy are also likely contributors to the existing gaps in who is and who is not thriving.43 Critically, multiple factors beyond the economy, including social, cultural, environmental and political factors, working at different levels from local to national, are known determinants of life evaluation and related measures of well-being.44–48) Social factors, including social support, volunteering, social trust, generosity and the degree of inequality in life satisfaction, are vital contributors to thriving. Variation in these factors likely underlie some of the observed variation in this study’s outcomes and more research is needed to identify which factor or factors are most predictive of population well-being.39 49–57
The difference in trends between CLS and FLO may provide further valuable information regarding the state of well-being across the USA. From the first to second time periods, counties demonstrated less improvement in their outlook for the future than their CLS, potentially pointing to worsening emotional and psychological well-being. These findings may complement the growing literature seeking to understand the causes underlying recent declines in US life expectancy and increases in mortality among middle-aged adults.13 For example, in a recent study examining the association between measures of well-being and mortality, Graham and Pinto reported that indicators of well-being, including hopefulness, aligned with trends in premature mortality.14 Their study found that lack of hope among whites with less than college education matched trends in premature mortality among Americans 35 to 64 years old. They additionally found that pain, reliance on disability insurance, low participation in the labour force, and differences in resilience across races mediated associations between lack of hope and mortality. Altogether, these results underscore the public health importance of tracking and responding to trends in hopefulness that could signal an urgent call to action for the health and well-being of the nation, likely now more than ever.
Multiple methods of assessing well-being exist, including multiple subjective or psychological measures that seek to measure how people feel about their lives58 as well as multiple sets of objective or traditional neoclassic measures of determinants of well-being such as income, gross domestic product, life expectancy and poverty rates. Various self-report measures of subjective well-being are employed across the globe, including a measure of life satisfaction in the OECD Better Life Initiative59 and in the Gallup World Poll,60 which also includes measures of emotional well-being. Of note, the subjective well-being measure of life evaluation reported in this study is distinct from the measure of life satisfaction used in other efforts. Although distinct, these two measures are highly correlated,61 and both measures capture and elevate a person-centred assessment of well-being. In addition, multiple sets of objective measures to assess well-being and the determinants of well-being exist. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a widely adopted set of objective measures, includes 17 goals across targets related to poverty, hunger and disease. All United Nations Member States have agreed to work towards these goals in an effort to achieve better health and well-being for all ages.62 In the USA, Healthy People 2030 set the data-driven national objectives to improve health and well-being between 2020 and 2030.20 These objectives include 23 Leading Health Indicators and 8 Overall Health and Well-being Measures. Importantly, these measures include both subjective measures of health and well-being, such as life satisfaction, and objective measures of health, well-being and equity that are consistent with SDGs. The inclusion of a subjective measure of well-being in the national objectives for the first time in the USA signals a new prioritisation of person-reported measurement of this highly important, holistic, and positively framed outcome.
Any effort to improve subjective well-being requires its measurement. Such measurement has been lacking across the US outside of the WBI itself. Consistent measurement of the determinants of life evaluation is also essential. To drive necessary improvement at national and county levels, percentage of the population thriving should become a key performance indicator20 45 63 that is tracked, monitored and prioritised.20 64 Such action, now signalled by Healthy People 2030, will add in important ways to our understanding of well-being and its distribution in the USA, support efforts to understand the relationship between thriving, struggling and suffering and other key determinants and outcomes, and allow comparison across other nations.
This study has limitations. First, as with any survey-based study, non-response bias could threaten the representativeness of the data. Gallup applied sampling and weighting methods to manage non-response bias and produce data representative of the populations included in the study. Of note, response rates65 eroded over the course of the 10-year measurement period from 15% to 10%, reflecting in part a methodologically requisite increase in the percentage of cellphone-based interviews each polling day from 15% in 2008 to 70% in 2017. As contact rates and cooperation rates are lower among cell phone users, the increase in the cell apportionment of the sampling frame contributed to the deterioration in overall response rates relative to earlier years. Despite this erosion, however, state-level results for many shared metrics, such as obesity rates, have been cross validated with high response rate government-sponsored health surveys including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), revealing highly convergent results and demonstrating the underlying efficacy of the WBI weighting algorithms in overcoming non-response bias and other related issues associated with data collected with lower response rates. For example, recent comparisons of WBI and BRFSS state obesity estimates from the same measurement year (2017) yielded a correlation of 0.940, and state obesity ranks yielded a correlation of 0.947. A second limitation is that these outcomes are subjective, self-reported outcomes, leaving the potential for responses to change over time in a way that is unrelated to underlying life evaluation. However, the Cantril Self-Anchoring Scale has been thoroughly tested for reliability and validity.66 Third, the county-level data are only reported as 5-year aggregates for counties with at least 300 respondents in 5 years; the report cannot demonstrate annual trends for counties within those 5-year time frames, nor provide insights into smaller and less densely populated counties. Still, the 5-year aggregate results provide reliable estimates within the confines of each reporting period, and the counties included are home to more than three-quarters of the US population.
While a larger percentage of the US population reported thriving in 2017 compared with 2008, 44% of the population was not thriving in 2017, with marked geographical variations at the county level. Moreover, stagnation or decline in life evaluation and its components was observed for many counties. These results should prompt further study and action, informing national and local priorities for research and policy to improve thriving, struggling and suffering, and related equity gaps across the US.
Data availability statement
The dataset used for this study is available on Dryad (doi:10.5061/dryad.fqz612jsf).
The Yale University institutional review board exempted the study (Protocol no. 1502015410).
We would like to thank Allison Parsons for her valuable contributions to the final version of this manuscript. We would also like to acknowledge the roles that Sharecare, Inc and Healthways, Inc performed in the acquisition and stewardship of these data. The Gallup National Health and Well-Being Index has previously been called the Gallup-Sharecare Well-being Index and the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, based on their partnerships with Gallup between 2017–2018 and 2008–2016, respectively.
Twitter @Carley_Riley, @hmkyale, @Broy3445
Contributors CR and BR participated in the initial conception of this study. JH, RL and DL performed the analyses. All authors (CR, BR, JH, RL, BH, DL, DW and HMK) contributed to the study design, interpretation of data, drafting and revising the article, and its final approval. All authors are guarantors. The authors affirm that the manuscript is an honest, accurate and transparent account of the study being reported; that no important aspects of the study have been omitted.
Funding This study was supported by The Institute for Integrative Health (www.tiih.org). There is no award/grant number to report; CR and BR are current Fellows of TIIH.
Disclaimer The funders had no role in the design or execution of this study.
Map disclaimer The depiction of boundaries on the map(s) in this article does not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of BMJ (or any member of its group) concerning the legal status of any country, territory, jurisdiction or area or of its authorities. The map(s) are provided without any warranty of any kind, either express or implied.
Competing interests CR and BR receive funding from the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and Heluna Health to support their effort in developing and implementing the measurement framework for the 100 Million Healthier Lives initiative and Well-being in the Nation; BR additionally receives grant funding for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. HMK reports personal fees from UnitedHealth, IBM Watson Health, Element Science, Aetna, Facebook, Siegfried & Jensen Law Firm, Arnold & Porter Law Firm, Ben C. Martin Law Firm and National Center for Cardiovascular Diseases, Beijing; HMK reports ownership of HugoHealth, ownership of Refactor Health, contracts from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and grants from Medtronic and the Food and Drug Administration, Medtronic and Johnson and Johnson, and Shenzhen Center for Health Information, outside the submitted work. JH reports funding from Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. DL and DW are current employees of Gallup and BH was an employee of Sharecare during the conduct of this study, the companies that developed the measure of well-being and acquired the data used in this study. VL has nothing to disclose.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
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