The Slatest

America’s Happiest and Saddest States Are Mirror Images of Each Other

Everyone’s happy: A brown bear in Haines, Alaska, in October 2014.

Bob Strong/Reuters

The polling outfit Gallup and a company called Healthways have released state-by-state results of a survey into what they call “well-being,” which, as defined, also might be described as self-reported happiness—and it turns out that the happiest and unhappiest states in the country have a lot in common.

The survey results cover “176,702 interviews with U.S. adults” on their feelings about five aspects of life satisfaction. In the words of the report, those five areas are:

  • Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Having supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community
  • Having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

Using a “composite rank” of those factors, America’s best-scoring state on the well-being index is a mountainous area with few urban centers and an economy reliant on the extraction of fossil fuels—Alaska. And America’s worst-scoring state is a mountainous area with few urban centers and an economy reliant on the extraction of fossil fuels—West Virginia.

What might explain the difference in life satisfaction between the two states? One obvious possibility is the relative status of coal and oil. According to this report, West Virginia and Alaska are two of the country’s three most mining-reliant states (as measured by the sector’s percentage of their state GDPs; the third is Wyoming)—and while Alaska’s mining operations revolve around the relatively healthy oil industry, West Virginia is in the heart of coal country. And the coal business is not great right now. From a 2014 West Virginia University study:

Coal continues to face serious long-term obstacles, both in supply and end-user demand, particularly in the power-generation sector. Productivity at the nation’s coal mines has been falling for more than a decade and this trend is expected to continue as more easily-mined reserves are exhausted. On the demand side, natural gas prices fell to near-record lows in 2012, which caused a temporary shift away from coal as fuel for power generation. As natural gas prices have risen again, coal generation has recovered, but the long-term outlook for coal-fired generation remains uncertain given recent trends in natural gas production and proposed changes in the regulatory environment for coal-fired power plants.

(Coal plants are a major target of the Obama administration’s environmental policies.)

As it happens, the Atlantic just published an excellent piece, titled “The Sickest Town in America,” about how the economy of a coal town can radiate out into problems with physical and mental health. The Atlantic’s profile is actually about Grundy, Virginia—but Grundy is just miles from southern West Virginia, the area of the state that has been affected most negatively by coal’s decline. (Grundy is also just over the border from Kentucky, which is the second-unhappiest state, according to Gallup/Healthways). Writes Olga Khazan:

The economy is built on physically grueling jobs. An injury causes pain, which causes depression. Depression makes it harder to work. People gain weight. The weight gain leads to sleep apnea and sometimes to diabetes. Diabetes can exacerbate vision problems … people self-medicate with prescription painkillers, alcohol, and tobacco. Eventually, said Smiddy, the pulmonologist, “they become dysfunctional. They’re weaving behind the car. They’re setting the stove on fire. It’s not that they’re bad people. They’re probably faith-based people, family people. Most are just trying to function.”

Khazan’s piece is largely about disabled workers rather than unemployed workers, and Alaska and West Virginia actually have similar rates of unemployment. She observes, though, that disability payments can act as a kind of long-term unemployment benefit even though its recipients are technically not unemployed—and rates of disability are very high in coal-reliant areas. Meanwhile, joblessness undermines the exact kinds of feelings of well-being that Gallup/Healthworks are measuring:

“Whatever the job, it can give a sense of belonging, of being a contributor; an important part, however menial, of an organization with a bigger purpose, a valued part of society,” wrote Tom Fryers, a visiting professor of public health at the University of Leicester in the U.K., in a recent paper. “Work can provide a structure for the day, week, and year without which life just drifts by.”

The next-happiest states in the survey, after Alaska: Hawaii, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. The least happy, along with West Virginia and Kentucky: Indiana, Ohio, and Mississippi. All of the 10 states with the highest well-being are west of the Mississippi River. None of the 10 states with the lowest well-being is any further west than Missouri.