Well-being Index has Utah going in the wrong direction

By at least one measure, life in Utah is getting steadily worse.

Arches National Park, Delicate Arch

When Gallup and Healthways started the Well-Being Index in 2008, Utah ruled. The Beehive State finished first. The index is an attempt to measure in categories from physical health, to access to quality care, work environment and how people feel about their lives. Fifty-five measures are evaluated, including whether people learn new and interesting things daily.

Then came 2009 and Utah fell to second. No big deal. Hawaii, the second place winner in ’08, had moved to No. 1.There are worse things in life than taking turns with Hawaii.

But in 2010 Utah fell to eighth. It rebounded to fifth place in ’11 and fourth in ’12, but the latest index, just released, has the state in 12th place. If this were football, some coach’s job would be on the line.

Granted, Utah is in no danger of becoming West Virginia, which has clung to last place as if it has hopes of getting a top draft pick next year — maybe some expert in  learning new things every day. But the trend is disturbing. Utah’s worst scores this year were in emotional health and physical health, two measures that are pretty much necessary for feeling good.

Granted, Utah is only in the middle of the pack of the 50 states in those categories, but state leaders might want to begin questioning why. (By the way, the state rules when it comes to the lowest percentage of smokers, big surprise!)

It could be that Utah hasn’t gotten worse, but that 11 other states have just improved at a fast rate since ’08. North Dakota and South Dakota, this year’s surprise first and second finishers, seem to have made their way to the top of a lot of lists since the energy boom put their economies in hyper-drive.

But an analysis published along with the rankings argues that leadership actually can affect well-being. When everyone from school principals to politicians provide “well-informed and active leadership,” a state can succeed at building an “institutionalized, embedded and sustained well-being culture.”

Iowa even has its own Healthiest State Initiative, which brings together public and private efforts to make everyone happier and healthier.

But then, while Iowa did jump from 22nd place last year to 10th this year, it’s worth noting that it finished third in the 2008 survey.

The truth is no one should exaggerate the importance of surveys such as these. But to the extent they uncover data that reveals trends, they should not be taken too lightly, either. Well-being can be subjective. What makes me happy may not necessarily make you happy. But if enough people say they feel sick, are obese or haven’t cared to learn anything new for a long time, state leaders should at least want to figure out why.

Categories: Utah issues

About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.

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