How Are We, America?

Pretty much every day you can count on hearing the phrase, “How are you?”. And pretty much everyday you can count on some version of the same response, “good”. This social exchange doesn’t appear to have changed much over the last few years or decade. However this is not necessarily an accurate reflection of how Americans, like you and me, really are doing. An annual Gallup survey aims to answer this question by quantifying the well-being of Americans on a 100 point scale. This year’s results are quite different from the last’s.

Gallup’s annual well-being survey measures American’s outlooks on five fundamental categories: sense of purpose, social relationships, financial security, relationship to community, and physical heath. Gallup acquires participants through phone interviews. For this survey, Gallup collected 135,426 participants across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Participants answered scaled questions for each category, and Gallup aggregated the results into a well-being index score. (More information regarding survey methods can be found at the end of the report or here.)

This year’s U.S. well-being index score came in at 61.5. This figure represents a 0.6 point drop from 2016. Although this number may seem ambiguously small, the sample size must come into consideration. With over 135,000 participants, the concern of sampling variation diminishes. Furthermore, Gallup states a sampling error of ±0.2 for the U.S. population. This means that a conservative conclusion would still arrive at a 0.4 point decrease over the last year. Not to mention, subsets of the sample demonstrated even more substantial aberrations between 2016 and 2017. The overall well-being index scores of females and blacks dropped 1.1 and 1.3 points, respectively. Both of these scores had increased or remained constant since 2014.

It’s easy to automatically attribute this change to the current climate – political division, mass shootings, and major scandals. While these factors likely had something to do with the survey results, it is important to remember that this survey is exactly that – a survey. It is observational not experimental, and causal conclusions cannot be made. Furthermore, as in any survey, the presence of biases and other factors must be considered. Under coverage, non-response bias, and dates of the survey are just a few of many factors that could lead to inaccurate results. (Gallup attempts to mitigate the concerns of under coverage and non-response bias by weighing the sample, and data collection ran from Jan. 2 to Sep. 30.) Even when accounting for error, however, these results point relatively clearly in one direction. American well-being has changed over the last year, and it is not for the better.

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