10 Saddest States all Republican?

As you may have heard, I am getting a degree in well-being, the psychology of optimal human flourishing, and all that jazz.  So I found myself perusing Gallups new data on well-being which compares the 50 states.  Each receives a score averaging six categories: life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior, work environment, and basic access—a reasonably holistic assessment methinks.

blog chart of states wellbeing

As I perused the state rankings, I found myself thinking about red and blue states, and correlating political affiliation with these well-being numbers.  So I downloaded the data, color coded the states according to how they voted in the 2012 presidential election (blue democrat/red republican), and then took a look at the swing states according to Politico.  Some items are worth sharing.

First, of the 10 happiest states, seven are democratic states and three are Republican.  However, if we take out the swing states, it is five and five.  Which tells us little it seems.

The states in the middle seem fairly mixed, there are just more Democratic ones (these days).

Rhode Island is striking for being a solidly blue state so low on the list.  Its geographical neighbors are much higher, and the other blue states near it on the list (Nevada, Michigan, and Florida) are in truth pretty nominally blue.

It is also worth noting that Hawaii is not just on top, but 1.4 points away from #2.  Likewise, West Virginia is not just at the bottom of the pile, it is, somewhat strangely, also a  full 1.4 points away from #49.  This is huge: all 48 other states are packed into a band from 62.7 to 69.7; only a 7-point range.  West Virginia and Hawaii are major outliers.

Finally, by far the biggest takeaway here is the mass of red at the bottom.  Of the 10 saddest states in the union, 9 are Republican.  In fact, these states might be appropriately described as “uber” Republican.   The only democratic state is Ohio, which is very much a swing state.  If we take out all the swing states, all 10 slots at the bottom of the well-being pile go Republican.  However, 8 of these 10 are also southern states, which means this might be a regional thing over and above a Republican thing.

So what do we make of this?  Is there a correlation between one’s political views and subjective well-being?

I am not sure, but I spent some time this afternoon thinking about it.  Here is the same Gallup well-being data from a geographic perspective:

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being index score is an average of six sub-indexes, which individually examine life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior, work environment, and basic access.

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being index score is an average of six sub-indexes, which individually examine life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior, work environment, and basic access.

I noticed that having “very religious” people seemed to correlate negatively with well-being (the more religious people in your state, the less happy our state is).  Of course, there are marked exceptions, especially Utah.   Also, West Virginia is not the most religious, nor is Hawaii the least; religion is not super relevant.
The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being index score is an average of six sub-indexes, which individually examine life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior, work environment, and basic access.

The percentage of state residents who say religion is important in their lives and say they attend church weekly or nearly weekly

I also looked at a number of other factors.  Underemployment did not seem to correlate at all, neither did hiring rates, or firing rates.  Economic outlook did seem to correlate a bit, except for the incredibly obvious exception of Wyoming.

Gallup's Economic Confidence Index is based on state residents' views of economic conditions in this country today, and whether they think economic conditions in the country are getting better or getting worse.

Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index is based on state residents’ views of economic conditions in this country today, and whether they think economic conditions in the country are getting better or getting worse.

So, after this afternoon’s intellectual adventure, I do not have an answer for you: I do not know why the 10 saddest states in the Union are all Republican.  I set up a question, I explored it, I brought you to the stream to drink, and the stream is dry.  What a cruel thing to do!

I wanted to still post this not only to point out an interesting data point I observed (the 10 saddest states are Republican), but also to say that I do not have all the answers and continually look for them.  I think that is why many of you read my blog; my mind is not made up and I do my best to treat the data honestly.  I am constantly playing with live fire because I really do believe I can change my mind at any point as I go about learning more about the world.  Which means you can change my mind too.  A malleable worldview makes intellectual adventures more fun.

In other news, I just finished a Yale lecture series on the Ancient Greeks and am now working through another Yale series on the American Civil War.  I want to post on my masters thesis topic, a speech I want Obama to give, and also my buddy Whit has one more post on gun control.  Looking forward to reporting on these ongoing intellectual adventures!  Thanks for reading everyone.  You rock!  

About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

11 responses to “10 Saddest States all Republican?

  • Jer Clifton

    Education rates seem to correlate pretty well. http://voices.yahoo.com/state-education-rankings-graduation-rates-high-6357074.html It also explains why Rhode Island, for being a solidly blue state, is so abysmally low on the list: it has really bad high school graduation rates. Interesting. Still not the best fit though.

  • Susannah

    Some days I wonder about weather too, in relation to happiness…Hawaii is just a pretty awesome place to exist. (Based solely on super-high positive reviews from everyone I’ve known who’s gone!) Not all the states at the bottom were southern, but I don’t know, I’ve never wanted to live in the south because of the humidity, and I’d feel like I was stuck inside all the time in the summer because of heat and humidity. Maybe SAD has something to do with it. That doesn’t explain across the board either, but it could affect it. Although WV probably doesn’t have that problem. I guess Hawaii just seems like an awesome place to live and be happy because it’s Hawaii and it’s gorgeous!…

    • Jer Clifton

      Absolutely. Though I have not heard anything about humidity, and certainly some people love it (you and I probably have radically different standards on what constitutes humid), there is definitely a “sun tax” that well-being experts talk about where people from more polar regions suffer from less sun, vitamin D, year-round convenience that encourages outdoor activities, etc. However, their research would go in some ways directly against your point: the southern states should be happier because they get more sun. Washington state should be the most depressed. You are right, of course, when it comes to Hawaii.

      Also, remember that this is a holistic measure of well-being which includes: life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior, work environment, and basic access. Weather affects some of those not at all, and I think the effect on all of them is ultimately fairly negligible. Even for emotional health, studies have shown (yes I am pulling that card ; ) that weather is generally overestimated as a cause of well-being. In fact, location generally does not make that big of a difference. Attitude seems to have a much bigger affect (i.e., optimism, pessimism, etc.).


  • tylerjwilkins

    Well I don’t know, most of my friends don’t seem too sad, nor does my family. I will tell you that WV is a very impoverished state. A substantial percentage of our population lives at or below the poverty line. Also, as a substantial percentage of our population is independent, and strongly pro-gun. Both of those sentiments are being challenged by our ever strengthening federal government. Also, I would point to the self-perpetuating cycle of welfare dependance in the state. We have a large number of families who rely entirely on welfare for their lively hood. They learn to play the system like a fiddle, they have several children to maximize their benefits, then teach their children how to do the same thing. There is no desire among these people for self-reliance, or for advancement in society. In the rural community I grew up in we had several families that lived in single-wide trailers with no plumbing. They would live in squalor, but get drunk or high every night while watching dish network on their flat screen. No, I’m not exaggerating…I have seen trailers with no plumbing that had dishes bolted to the outside of them. I have no empirical evidence to support any of this. These suppositions are entirely based on person opinion and observation.

    • Jer Clifton

      Tyler, are you from WV? Fascinating. FYI, My family traditional is from Virginia, mostly the Roanoke area. And on that side of the family is a lot of self-described hicks, and their proud of it, and I love them for it, and their is a bit of that in me as well, so I have a bit of an affinity for the “south”…

      Anyway, please look at my comments above on poverty rates and inequality.

      As for your comments on cyclical poverty, I will see you and raise you inner-city poverty too. I saw how aiding the poor often incentivizes poverty in strange and awful ways. However, having said that, there seems to be a number of commons sense ways to reform that, many of which have already been put in place. Also, in terms of federal expenditure, helping poor people is a fairly tiny portion of the federal budget. http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=1258 It also seems that for every one family that scams the system in some way, we help many more.


      BTW, there is only a 11% well-being difference between Hawaii and West Virginia. That is substantial for sure, but it is not that much (i.e., there are certainly plenty of happy people in WV and unhappy people in Hawaii).

  • -whit

    I snuck a peak at suicide rates, and I didn’t really spot much of a correlation with happiness. Republican states still rock the top 10, but there different states, bring to my attention the fun facts about the relationship between suicides and population density.
    Also, I wonder if the doom and gloom forecasts of Fox pundits and talk radio mixed with Obama’s reelection has dampened and intrenched the republican’s collective outlook. It would have been interesting to have seen this pole done under the Bush presidency, to see if there would have been a rise in Red State contentment, and a drop in well-being among liberals.
    I do have some beef with the ‘holistic questions’ that the gallop pole asked but over-all I am quite pleased to hear that if you fight to keep slavery legal your decedents will still feel shitty about their lives centuries to come.

    • Jer Clifton

      Is there a relationship between suicides and population density?

      hah! There has been some people to talk (on Facebook in response to this post) about well-being and its connection to national elections. One professor friend of mine mentioned it. I think that is a bit absurd. I am not sure if people truly care enough. Plus, this gallup assessment measures “life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior, work environment, and basic access.” I do not think people get sick, fat, stop eating their vegetables, have work-related accidents, or have access to healthcare or what not, based on how they feel about whoever happens to be in the Oval office. I think this assessment is much deeper than that.

  • PH

    I echo what Alicia has already stated. The bottom 10 states are also some of the poorest states. Is there a correlation between rural poverty, republicans and sadness?

    • Jer Clifton

      Thanks for commenting!

      Poverty rates wise, we do seem to see a fairly close connection, just by glancing at it for sure(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:US_states_by_poverty_rate.svg). However, West Virginia had a poverty rate at 15.4% in 2008, while Mississipi was 20.1%, however, it was still in the bottom 10. New mexico was third from the bottom in poverty rate, but is dead center, rank is 25, when it comes to overall well-being. There also seems to be other discrepancies. I did not look at rural poverty though.

      Inequality also looks like it explains some of the well-being rankings (http://www.businessinsider.com/new-york-inequality-2011-1?op=1). However, the top three unequal states are not in the bottom 20 in well-being (New York, Texas, and Connecticut)!

      I think the temptation for us in economic development is to think that well-being is driven by a lack of material possessions. That is true and not. Some of the happiest countries are quite poor (i.e. Mexico) and some of the wealthiest countries are quite depressed (i.e., Japan and the USA). That is why I think positive psych stuff is so relevant to economic development (and can be why, for that matter, Christianity is as well).


  • aliciabwclifton

    What about poverty or inequality? My thought is that they would both be reasonably inversely correlated with wellbeing.

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