Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Opinion

Column: Gallup study confirms that 2017 really is worse than 2016

It’s not just your imagination: Life in America really has become more unpleasant this year.

According to a new Gallup report, American well-being fell by a "statistically significant and meaningfully large" amount from 2016 to 2017. The drops were largest among women, minorities, Democrats and low-income Americans.

"Well-being" in this case is based on survey responses to a variety of questions organized into five main categories: physical health, financial health, social support, community involvement, and a sense of purpose. It includes questions like: Are you worried about money? Do you like what you do? Do you exercise frequently? Are your friends and family a positive influence on your life?

The answers to all of these questions are mashed into a statistical index ranging from 0 to 100, with 100 representing maximum well-being. Across more than 100,000 survey interviews, that index value had been slowly creeping upward in recent years, from an average of 61.6 in 2014 to 62.1 in 2016.

This year it fell to 61.5, which Gallup says is the biggest year-over-year drop since 2008.

In absolute terms, that number hasn’t changed much — overall well-being is still just a little bit more than 60 percent of what its theoretical maximum would be under Gallup’s methodology. But because of the huge numbers of people involved in this particular survey — more than 100,000 each year — even small changes in the well-being score are statistically significant, indicative of some meaningful change in the average American’s life.

The numbers suggest that change is linked to our social and emotional health, as well as our sense of purpose. For instance, in 2017, over 41 percent of Americans report having little interest or pleasure in doing things some days each week, up from less than 34 percent last year. The percent saying they like what they do each day has fallen by several points, while people saying they have "significant" daily worries is up.

"All of these metrics were highly stable from 2014 through 2016," Gallup writes, "and in each case the negative movement so far in 2017 is highly statistically significant."

There’s good evidence that at least some of this is rooted in our current political climate, as well as in partisan preferences. The year-over-year drop in well-being among Democrats (0.9 points), for instance, is more than four times larger than the drop among Republicans (0.2 points).

Drops in well-being were particularly large among women, blacks and Hispanics, three groups with especially low opinions of the president. Gallup has also found that daily worry rose significantly following the election of President Donald Trump.

Other Gallup data has found that overall satisfaction in the way things are going in the U.S. has fallen by seven points since last year. "One reason that satisfaction may be lower is that Americans regard the government as the most important problem facing the country — and displeasure with Trump is one of the major reasons why," the report concluded.

Americans’ relatively gloomy outlook in 2017 stands in sharp contrast to current economic data, which generally paints a rosy picture: falling unemployment, record stock market gains and overall economic confidence. But in the end, it appears that money really can’t buy national happiness.

Roughly a year ago it became fashionable to lament that 2016 was shaping up to be the "worst year ever." If nothing else, 2017 has taught us that things can always get worse.

And as Homer Simpson might say, as badly as it’s turning out, 2017 may not be the worst year of our lives either — just the worst year of our lives so far.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data for the Washington Post. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
© 2017 Washington Post

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