- Special Projects
Hawaii, you seem to be losing a key part of your identity. A couple years ago, you said you were the happiest one around, and you were.
But now the Dakotas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Montana, Vermont and Colorado all have residents who say they feel better than residents of Hawaii. Just look at the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being index, a daily poll of 500 Americans throughout the year. The islands topped the survey in 2012. In the results from last year’s survey, Hawaii is eighth.
Think about that. Amid the fertility of this fauna, the elegance of this flora, the relentlessness of our epic waves — eighth.
We can comfort ourselves when we look at those happier states. After all, their skies might be big in Montana, the mountains loom large in Colorado, and liquid cash in North Dakota is being fracked right out of the ground (in the form of natural gas and oil), but none of those states have sunsets, waterfalls or rainbows like ours. And when residents of those states mull their dream vacation, we know they imagine wiggling their toes in Hawaii’s silky sands.
And yet they’re happier.
The reason is, I suspect, relatively simple.
The increasing well-being in those other states — as well as our own decline — has to do with the fact that their mortgages and rents, electric bills and groceries cost less, and their incomes go further. The economics of their lives don’t require them to work as much. Yes, some of them will because they want to earn more money or they just like their work, but that’s a choice.
What really dragged the state down was “work environment.” On that, between 2012 and 2013, we fell from tops in the nation down to number 42.
A whole lot of us have to hustle hard to make ends meet. It is why we work overtime — whether paid or unpaid — and lead the nation in the percentage of the population with more than one job.
As I recently wrote, the national household income that is believed to give people a good chance at happiness — by allowing people to avoid core stresses about not having enough money — is, when adjusted for Hawaii’s cost of living, $122,175. That’s more than $55,000 above the state’s median household income.
People have pointed out in comments on Civil Beat’s Living Hawaii series, you don’t need such a household income to be happy. But people who self-report on their own happiness seem to be more likely to be content if they are around that level. And even most unmaterialistic people would prefer not to worry about whether they can afford healthy food and preventive medical care, or whether losing their job might quickly send them into bankruptcy or off the island.
People who live month to month tend to feel less freedom to leave their jobs. Factors such as these make people put up with an unpleasant work environment because, well, they have little or no choice, which takes us back to what pushed Hawaii down to N0. 8 on the happiness index in 2013.
A lot of factors go into happiness, or unhappiness, so it is worth taking a closer look at what is dragging Hawaii down. Gallup-Healthways’ well-being index includes a ranking of states based on six factors: “Life evaluation,” “emotional health,” “physical health,” “healthy behaviors,” “work environment” and “basic access.”
Hawaii did well on emotional health, defined as positive emotionally (fourth place) and healthy behavior (second place). The survey says that “life evaluation” is the distance between where you are now in your life, and where you expect to be five years from now. On that, Hawaii ranked ninth. On “basic access” — an array of items measuring residents’ access to food, shelter, healthcare, and a safe and satisfying place to live — Hawaii came in seventh. On physical health, 14 states surpassed the islands.
But what really dragged the state down was “work environment.” On that, between 2012 and 2013, we fell from tops in the nation down to number 42.
There are plenty of other indicators to show that Hawaii may have a problem. This one stands out: Forbes magazine recently ranked Hawaii as the “worst state to make a living.”
Variations in the cost of living mean that a person’s salary in Hawaii can buy about one-third less piece of mind than it does in some other states.
Incomes aren’t everything, of course. But they are a factor when it comes to the quality of life for most people. The foreword of the national well-being report for 2013 helps convey why:
“Well-being is about the interaction between physical health, finding your daily work and experiences fulfilling, having strong social relationships and access to the resources you need, feeling financially secure, and being a part of a true community.”
The fracking boom — all environmental risks aside — has helped to propel North Dakota from 19th on the 2012 well-being index to the top of the list in 2013. It is easier to feel financially secure when incomes are rising fast and when your money stretches to cover your costs and lets you plan for the future.
Adjusted for the cost of living, the Tax Foundation found that $100 across the country is worth $111 in North Dakota. In Hawaii, it is worth just 85 bucks. Variations in the cost of living mean that a person’s salary in Hawaii can buy about one-third less piece of mind than it does in some other states.
There are reasons to believe that Hawaii will slide further down the well-being index when the next one comes out. That’s because the annual survey that began on Jan. 1, 2014, includes an additional range of well-being elements, including “Managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security.”
Hawaii may do fine on the other new indicators, such as, “having supportive relationships and love in your life,” or “liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community.”
But I suspect that the financial pressures will continue to undermine our well being. I’d bet on it, but I don’t have the money to risk.
You can download the State of Hawaii Well-Being results for 2013 here and the Bureau of Economic Analysis state-by-state cost of living data here.
Join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to continue the conversation and discuss practical and political solutions.