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.
Here's another idea: To retire to Hawaii, to "have enough money to do what I want", to "worry less about money", and to regularly "travel and vacation with family and friends" all suggest that a retiree with some disposable income is more likely to enjoy his dotage than an unemployed coal miner with black lung disease will, regardless of whether his big gulp is doubly taxed.
The study mentions as an aside that VT (94% tax on cigarettes, highest in the nation), ranks 45th in happiness, while New Hampshire ranks 3rd. Th Granite State does impose a high tax on cigarettes - it just hiked it to 65% - but unlike its neighbor, has no sales or income tax. For that matter, it leaves the decision whether to wear a seat belt up to the individual driver. Vermont has a declining population, a soaring tax burden and some of the more repressive social rules in the nation.
Vermonters know very well that their government cares about how they lead their life; they can hardly escape it, but has that produced the happiness that Gallop's Mr. Witters predicts? Apparently not.