April 29, 2008 -- The majority of Americans say they're struggling and not thriving because of stress, disease, and work life, according to a first-ever national survey of well-being released Tuesday.
Forty-nine percent of 103,000 Americans surveyed said they felt like they were "thriving." But 47% said they're "struggling," and another 4% reported "suffering," researchers say.
The survey asks people familiar questions about their age, employment status, and overall health. But researchers say they wanted to find out how disease status, workplace satisfaction, access to insurance, and other factors affect people's sense of well-being.
So survey participants weren't just asked how many diseases they have. They also answered questions such as "Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday," "Did you feel very stressed yesterday," and "How many hours did you spend with family or friends?"
Researchers weren't surprised to find that obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes and asthma had a negative impact on well-being. But they also found that other, negative parts of life have a compounding affect that makes those problems worse.
"The impact on well-being is really very striking," says Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton University professor of psychology and public affairs who won the 2002 Nobel Prize for economics.
For example, 34% of those surveyed said they felt stress on the previous day. The number jumped to 38% for those with diabetes and 50% for those with asthma, the survey shows.
In another example, people with a health condition were 4% more likely than those with no health condition to report feeling stressed "a lot of the day yesterday." The difference jumped four times -- to 16% -- among smokers.
"Once you have a problem, there's a compounding effect," says Virginia Gurley, MD, vice president of Healthways, a health information company that conducted the study with Gallup.
The results were the first data from a new Well-being Index conducted by the two companies. Plans are to use brief cell phone interviews to generate daily results for an index measuring the pulse of Americans' happiness similar to how the Dow Jones average measures the pulse of financial markets.
CDC Director Julie Gerberding, MD, says the survey has the potential to move the health care debate away from what she says are narrow questions of the health delivery system.
"We have a lot of info about disease, we have a lot of information about cost, we have a lot of information about risk. But we actually know very little about health and how to measure it," she says.
Researchers from Gallup and Healthways say they plan to soon release localized well-being data, parsing individual ZIP codes from one another.