Can we measure happiness? Gallup, in collaboration with Healthways, developed a well-being index and, based on this index, they surveyed at least 1000 people every day for two years to chart the change in happiness across the United States over time. The survey includes questions in the following domains:

  1. Life Evaluation  (overall view of life in the present and future)
  2. Emotional Health (happiness, stress, and depression)
  3. Physical Health (pain and sick days in the past month)
  4. Healthy Behavior (smoking, a healthy diet, and exercise)
  5. Work Environment (job satisfaction, using strengths at work, and a culture of trust and partnership)
  6. Basic Access  (safety, healthcare, food, and shelter)

The only one of these domain measures that went down between 2009 and 2010 was “work environment”. This is not surprising given the state of the economy. However, even with widespread home financing problems and high unemployment, the overall index of well-being went up.

In response to a request by the New York Times, Gallup used the survey to come up with a composite of the happiest person in America: he’s a tall, Asian-American, observant Jew who is at least 65 and married, has children, lives in Hawaii, runs his own business and has a household income of more than $120,000 a year. What’s astounding to me is that they found a person who fits this description living and quite happy in Honolulu!

I have my doubts about the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index data. Survey respondents are asked to remember their behavior from the previous day. While that might seem like a simple task, human beings are notoriously unreliable when it comes to self-report of emotional and physical health, especially to a stranger on the phone. And surveying different people each time is different from surveying the same people each time. On the other hand, the survey probably does provide a useful look at America's general sense of well-being over time. It's a barometer of life in America that should stimulate many interesting questions.