Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


July 21, 2011

Measuring the Quality of Life

Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index consultant Danielle Posa talks about how the survey is giving new insights into the health and happiness of Americans.

Vincent Valk

"How are you today, really?"

Every night, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index calls 1,000 Americans to ask this question. The giant, ongoing poll of Americans' well-being asks respondents to evaluate their lives, but it also asks about their health, their access to necessities like food and transportation, and even if they laughed or smiled yesterday. With more than one million responses in the database going back to 2008, the index paints a pretty comprehensive picture of how Americans are really doing.

Danielle Posa
"New Yorkers are not well rested and do not exercise enough."

Danielle Posa

But it's not just for the sake of conversation, says Danielle Posa, a consultant for the index. The goals of the index are to help leaders anticipate problems before they occur and give them a more comprehensive picture of the impact of policies. "We wanted this to be an index to advise leaders on how to influence the future as opposed to reacting to what has already happened," Posa says. Eventually, the index aims to get leaders to consider how overall well-being ties into problems like crime and obesity, instead of viewing such problems as separate issues. It's no idle aim, either: In one of Gallup's international well-being surveys, it noticed a marked drop in peoples' life evaluation in the months preceding Egypt's revolution.

In the following interview, edited for clarity, Posa talks about how the index got started, how the recession affected well-being, and how the Big Apple stacks up against other cities in physical and emotional health.

Gelf Magazine: Tell us what the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index is and how it works.

Danielle Posa: What we wanted to do is take a step back and look at quality of life more holistically and not just from health and wellness standpoint. The index in us is meant to be most robust metric of its kind looking at addressing overall well-being of citizens of the US. It was developed with top scientists from around the world who helped determine what needs to be asked. The questions were then sifted through to develop six domains. [Editor's note: Those domains are life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior, work environment and basic access. You can read more about them here.]

Gelf Magazine: What was the impetus behind starting it?

Danielle Posa: The idea was to be a leading indicator rather than a lagging indicator. We wanted to be an index to advise leaders and help them realize that increasing the quality of people’s lives in this country should be at the forefront of their minds. There was also no current standardized metric for health in our country at that time. If you look at traditional data, it's stuff that has already happened, like obesity and disease. The items we selected here are to help predict crime or health issues or depression. Leaders of our company sat down with people at the Centers for Disease Control and organizations like that and found there was no way to group the data from all these different organizations to see how to assess overall well-being and health. So they said something like that doesn’t exist and we said it needed to be developed. Healthways became our partner to have this index created to turn an idea into reality, and now we literally have our finger on the pulse of America’s people.

Gelf Magazine: How do the results in those areas tend to differ across different parts of the US?

Danielle Posa: Parts do differ. The overall index is pretty constant, but there are definitely local differences. Regionally, the Midwest and South tend to do the worst. States also differ, and in a number of ways. A state like California is totally mixed, with pockets scoring very low and pockets scoring very high. But Iowa, for example, has less variation. We also know there are differences between rural and metropolitan areas. More densely populated cities have higher well-being. However, one thing that’s important to note is that although we don’t see drastic fluctuations in our index on a daily basis, because we have such a huge sample size, all differences can be seen as statistically significant. That’s the power of this metric.

Gelf Magazine: I noticed a rather marked decline in daily average well-being at the end of 2008. Did the recession impact the country's well-being?

Danielle Posa: Yes. It has been increasing since then overall, but the recession did have a negative impact. When we look at the overall wellbeing index score, we saw a drop, which is understandable. But more specifically, the work environment has seen the sharpest decline overall and it hasn't really gotten any better. Given how unemployment is still high, this isn't surprising. In this index, we do look at more than just employment numbers, however. We ask things like whether people are using their strengths at work, and if their supervisor treats them like a partner and creates a trusting work environment.

Gelf Magazine: Are there month to month or seasonal changes—do people rate their lives higher in the spring than in the winter?

Danielle Posa: I think there are. The whole US is pretty consistent, but if you do a dive into smaller areas you get at it. When we average across the whole country if you look at our trending there are slight dips in January and February, and there's an uptick in July and August. Small changes are notable; it doesn't take much for something to be statistically significant with such a large data set.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think there are issues with people self-reporting their life satisfaction? How do you correct for this?

Danielle Posa: No. We don't think there are, because we use a self anchoring scale that corrects for this. We ask respondents to imagine a ladder with steps from zero at bottom to ten at the top and then ask them, "Which step of ladder do you think are at this time?" Zero is the worst, ten is the best. It is designed like that for a reason. It gives people the flexibility to evaluate their own lives because everyone's life is different. It's important because you could have two people who make the same amount of money and live in the same place but they evaluate their lives differently. So we ask general questions about life evaluation, but we balance it out with specific stuff like did you laugh or smile yesterday. Also, we look at future life evaluation; we want to see people optimistic about the future.

Gelf Magazine: How does New York fare in well-being in comparison to other US cities?

Danielle Posa: New York is decent overall, though DC is number one for large metros. New York State is ranked 32 of 50 overall. For the city, we are ranked 90th out of 188 metropolitan areas, which is very much in the middle. Though in 2009, we were 113th, so we've moved up. Looking across domains, NYC is strongest in physical health, which makes sense given how much of a mobile city it is. We were worst in emotional health, at 145th out of 188 in 2010. We also score well in basic access.

Gelf Magazine: Why is New York so terrible about emotional health?

Danielle Posa: New Yorkers are not well rested, do not exercise enough, often have poor relationships with supervisors and many do not think the city is getting better. The city ranks below 130th out of 188 metro areas—and as low as 165th for exercise—in all of these categories, which are a part of the emotional health score. The city's high cost of living plays a role, too, with just 89.2% of New Yorkers having enough money for shelter at all times, which ranks 133rd in the nation. Strong links here to stress, worry, and sadness, for obvious reasons.

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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- Science
- posted on Jul 22, 11
Susan W.

Great write-up Danielle! Congrats!

Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

Learn more about this author


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