Older Americans are happiest in Hawaii, least happy in West Virginia, new analysis finds

The summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island is pictured Dec. 1 covered in snow as seen from Waimea, Hawaii. (Grant Matsushige / Grant Matsushige Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope)

Despite the creaky knees and reading glasses that come with old age, Americans tend to get happier as they grow older, a new analysis finds.

Based on phone surveys that are part of the annual Gallup-Healthways State of American Well-Being series, the report found people 55 and older doing better than younger people across five parameters. When it comes to financial well-being, older people thrive at a rate of 53 percent, compared to 33 percent for younger people; they also score higher on measures of community, purpose, social, and health.

In a survey that reached 115,000 older Americans over 15 months, they expressed higher satisfaction with their standard of living, said they worry less about money, and said they have enough money to do what they want. They also reported higher rates of having health insurance and a personal doctor, and lower incidence of obesity and depression than younger Americans.

But much can depend on where one lives. The states with the highest levels of well-being among older people are Hawaii, Arizona, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Colorado; the lowest levels are in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Ohio and Indiana.

“The 55 and over crowd in those top states … report always making time for regular trips and vacations with family and friends, reaching their goals in the last 12 months, using their strengths and aptitudes as a human being, in other words, doing things that are a natural right fit for them,” said Dan Witters, research director for the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.

Particularly striking is the range of different outcomes in geographic areas. There is one cluster of states with high rankings in a section of the Midwest, but for the most part, the high- and low-ranking states are evenly distributed. New Hampshire ranks third while its similarly-sized neighbor, Vermont, ranks 45th. Arizona is second, while New Mexico is 28th.

Part of this may be explained by demography. Native American populations in New Mexico have a high rate of obesity, alcoholism, smoking and chronic conditions, which may be a factor in the state’s lower ranking, said Sheri Pruitt, chief behavioral scientist for Healthways SilverSneakers Fitness, a fitness program for older adults.

But state policy also seems to play a role. The higher-ranking states are more likely to have policies promoting better health. In Colorado, a “sugar tax” levied on foods with high sugar content has had the effect of dissuading some people from purchasing such foods, Witters said.

Stronger anti-smoking legislation also correlates with higher rankings on the well-being index. Colorado and Arizona, for example, ban smoking in workplaces, restaurants and bars, while West Virginia and Kentucky have no statewide bans on smoking.

Legislation on the state level works not only by making unhealthy lifestyles harder to pursue but also in more subtle psychological ways, Witters said. “Where people believe that their well-being is automatically cared about by their leaders, not only do they report a higher level of well-being but their well-being continues to go up over time,” he said.


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