Alternative Indicator: The Well-Being Index

How many people do you have to poll to accurately evaluate a country's well-being? The answer, according to polling giants Gallup and disease management company Healthways, is a thousand a day, seven days a week, 350 days a year, for 25 years. The two organizations are doing just that in a effort to determine the U.S. Well-Being Index.

What is it?

As of September 1, 2010, the U.S. Well-Being Index was 66.9, and has dropped to as low as 63.3 at the end of 2007. The state with the highest WBI as of 2009 was Hawaii at 70.2; the lowest was West Virginia at 60.5.

What does it measure?

The Well-Being Index is indended to achieve a method of accurately evaluating overall well-being and health over time. It is based on the World Health Organization's definition of health as "not only the absence of infirmity and disease, but also a state of physical, mental and social well-being."

How do they get there?

Since January 2008, the polling organizations have surveyed 1,000 U.S. residents each day about topics ranging from satisfaction with their jobs to whether or not they have access to fresh fruits and vegetables to how much of their day is spent laughing or smiling. The numerical responses fall under six different categories: life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behaviors, work environment and basic access. The final numerical average of those categories is known as the Well-Being Index.

What does it tell us (really)?

The WBI, aside from being a very comprehensive survey, provides great information when you want to analyze a particular state or city's rankings in different categories. For instance, the WBI provides good perspective if you want to know about, say, the emotional health of South Dakotans. This kind of information is attractive to policy makers and politicians who want to gauge the various satisfactions and dissatisfactions of their constituents. You can, by the way, check out WBI data for individual congressional districts on their website.

But nobody's perfect

Some critics have argued that the WBI doesn't hold up as a singular measure for overall well-being. The formula combines responses to a variety of subjective questions (e.g. When was the last time you experienced happiness?) with responses to objective, quantifiable queries (e.g. How many cigarettes do you smoke a week?). When the responses are all combined and whittled down to a single number, it doesn't necessarily tell us all that much about overall well-being. For instance, Hawaii comes in at number one overall and in every category - except one: it comes in last in the work environment category. So its designation as Number One on the WBI leaves out the fact that most Hawaiians dislike their jobs.

To find out the latest WBI figures for the U.S. or your individual state, city or congressional district, you can visit the WBI website.

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