Utah ranks fourth in nation in happiness, but signs show declining well-being

September 21, 2022 (abc4)

Utah was just named one of America’s happiest states but according to the Utah Foundation, the state’s overall well-being may very well be on the decline.

A recent study from WalletHub found that Utah is the fourth happiest state in the nation, averaging a score of 62.41, placing it just below Hawaii (66.31), Maryland (62.60) and Minnesota (62.43). While the study gives Utah flying colors in happiness, leading the nation in positive work and community environments, WalletHub found Utah in the middle of the park, ranked at 29, for Emotional & Physical Wellbeing.

Earlier in June, the Utah Foundation reported that the overall Community Quality of Life in Utah dropped from a score of 73 to 64 since 2013. Utah’s Personal Quality of Life score also fell, dropping from 82 to 76 from 2018.

So if Utah is so happy, why would Utahns rate their well-being so low and say their quality of life is decreasing over the years?

It’s a question that has stumped Utah Foundation’s Vice President Shawn Teigen and his team. “Honestly, it makes no sense to me.”

Utah Foundation measures quality of life using a variety of different factors. Community Quality of Life is measured through 20 different factors including housing affordability, traffic conditions, community support, and attractiveness of surroundings. Personal Quality of Life is measured through seven metrics: happiness, physical health, relationships, financial security, meaning in life, spiritual peace, and career all saw a decline in the last four years.

Given the nationwide issues of inflation and housing affordability in Utah, Teigen expected a drop in financial security, but instead saw a drop in all seven metrics.

“We just don’t understand it. Is it that inflation, concerns about recession, and concerns about housing affordability, is dragging everything down even though our own personal financial security didn’t go down as far as any of the others?” Teigen told ABC4.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, Teigen and his team expected to see an increase in many of the metrics that make up their research for Personal Quality of Life. With many jobs opting to work from home, many Utahns had more time to spend with loved ones. People got more into exercise by spending time outside, going on walks, or riding bikes.

A proper work-life balance and Utah’s sense of community were on display in the WalletHub study. Utah had the lowest amount of work hours while offering the highest rate of volunteer hours. The Beehive state also led the nation in sports participation and reportedly has the lowest divorce rate in the country.

Teigen and his team thought the positive effects would carry on post-pandemic, with Utahns reporting stronger relationships, perhaps better physical health, and with a better sense of work-life balance, a better understanding of purpose in life and satisfaction with careers.

Instead, it has been the exact opposite.

With the pandemic reportedly coming to an end, Teigen speculates that the decline in Utah’s Well-Being might be the result of long term mental health effects as an after effect from the pandemic.

“I guess that transition hasn’t made people feel a little bit better in terms of overall being healthy and liking their job,” Teigen said. “When you think about it, the one explanation – going back to the WalletHub survey, when you look at Emotional and Physical Health – if we’ve got some long term ramifications in terms of our mental health from COVID, then maybe that clouds your spirituality. Maybe that clouds your meaning of life, your relationships, your job, and how healthy you are physically, and even your finances.

So, what can Utahns do to better their well-being and maybe even take over the nation as the happiest state in the country?

One expert from WalletHub’s study suggests relying on your support system.

“Spending time with people that you care about and engaging in physical activities that you enjoy are beneficial ways to boost well-being,” said Dr. Emily Willroth, a Washington University in St. Louis. Assistant Professor in Pyschological and Brain Sciences. “If you are struggling with your well-being, it can also be helpful to reach out to a mental healthcare provider or to speak with your primary care physician about your concerns.”

Teigen agrees, saying spending time with loved ones makes a lot of sense, but was quick to note that the Utah Foundation isn’t a team of psychologists or psychiatrists. Instead, Utah Foundation looks toward public policy in how Utahns can improve well-being and happiness.

“We can say there is a link between personal and community quality of life. So if you feel like you have a higher community quality of life, you’re likely to feel like you have a personal quality of life,” Teigen told ABC4.

“A big one is affordable housing. It’s the cost of living. So what can you do in the policy arena to get more affordable housing and to help people with their cost of living? Another big one and another one that a lot of people talk about is people want to live in attractive communities. They want to have trees and want to have beautiful boulevards and pedestrian-friendly walkways and good-looking buildings and just live in communities that look good. Another thing that a lot of people brought up is air quality. If you’ve got bad air quality you’re probably not going to feel that great about any of that stuff.” 

Teigen and his team also found a link between education and personal income. Teigen told ABC4 people with with more education have higher incomes, whether it’s a undergraduate or a graduate degree or even a high-quality career-specific certificate.

“Getting more education and hopefully not spending too much for it and not getting into too much debt may open up some job opportunities for you to have a little bit higher income and feel a little bit better about both your personal quality of life and community quality of life,” said Teigen.

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