Politics & Government

Can Gallup's new happiness index make us a better nation?

Happy children play in a pool in Wichita, Kansas.
Happy children play in a pool in Wichita, Kansas. Jaime Oppenheimer / Wichita Eagle / MCT

WASHINGTON — The Gallup Organization and a health industry partner now offer a detailed daily measure of U.S. happiness and stress that you can look up on the Internet. They hope that it'll be as influential an indicator of national progress someday as the gross domestic product.

The index, which is based on 1,000 in-depth interviews nightly, is the first time that happiness and its many components have been measured regularly and precisely in other than dollar terms.

To come up with the daily index, Gallup asks a battery of questions about respondents' previous days, including state of health, economic comfort, job satisfaction, social life, restedness, optimism, worry and other factors in contentment.

The magic of the effort, which started Jan. 2, isn't in the simple results: Spring lifts gloom, for example, and manufacturing jobs are stressful. Rather, it's in teasing out previously unknown links between job stress and health, or depression and success at quitting smoking.

For example, a closer look at one subset puts a new value on health insurance: Among sick people with no health insurance, 56 percent reported a lot of stress in the previous day. Among those with health insurance, only 39 percent reported a lot of stress.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, hailed the index and its vast underlying data set as "music to the ears of the profession of public health."

"We have lots of information about disease, cost and risk," Gerberding said of the new index and its database, "but we know very little about health and how to measure it." Her hope is that the index will reveal special traits for healthy people.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a senior scholar at Princeton and the winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, called the database of 150,000 respondents collected since January "a huge treasure . . . absolutely unique in richness and precision."

Gallup, which is based in Washington, developed the index with support from Healthways Inc. of Franklin, Tenn., which promotes strategies to improve personal health and reduce health-care provider costs. So it's called the Gallup-Healthways Daily Happiness-Stress Index.

Employers who want to cut down on sick days or improve job satisfaction already are studying the data, according to Gallup. So are Wall Street analysts who are looking to measure how optimism and worry distort trading decisions.

The happiness-stress index itself is simply the percentage of the previous day's respondents who said they'd been happy and relatively stress-free versus the percentage who'd worried a lot without much enjoyment.

On an average American day, the overall ratio is about five to one in favor of happiness, said James Harter, Gallup's chief scientist for well-being.

Lots of factors influence the scores for subsets, however.

Among lonely people, for example, the usual happiness-stress ratio is more like one to one, Harter said. On Tuesdays, the ratio is lower than on Fridays. In spring, it's higher than in winter. And women worry more than men.

Weekends are always the best of days, Harter has found, and the very best so far included New Year's Day, Super Bowl Sunday and Easter.

Jim Clifton, Gallup's chief executive officer, has big plans for the index. He thinks that lawmakers should be judged, at least in part, by their constituents' happiness-stress scores. He plans to sort the responses by state and congressional district, using ZIP codes already in hand, and deliver the scores to members of Congress at year's end.


The current happiness-stress index.

Learn more about the index.