From Low to High: We Can Improve Tristate’s Poor Rank in Well-Being

A man and woman sit on park benches

The 2016 national State of American Well-Being report card is out, and the Tristate does not fare well. Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio all rank in the bottom six states according to an index produced by Gallup and Healthways. The index measures states and communities in five categories:

  • Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Community: liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community
  • Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

Ohio ranked No. 45, Indiana No. 47 and Kentucky No. 49.

What does this mean? First, we are among those states that have been hit particularly hard by lost manufacturing jobs in the last 15 to 20 years. In many towns and cities, we are no longer able to tell young people that a good job will be waiting for them if they get a college education. Furthermore, it’s hard to pay off $40,000 in college debt if you can’t make much more than minimum wage.

We are also among those states that have been hit hard by the heroin epidemic, which has been devastating to communities, and we have high rates of obesity and tobacco use. Our unhealthy habits and addiction disorders put us at heightened risk for a host of neurological and psychiatric illnesses, including stroke, head injury, head and neck cancers and depression.

Looking more closely, we see some positive signs. Kentucky ranks in the third quintile (29th) in community, while Indiana and Ohio rank 30th and 31st, respectively, in financial well-being. Kentucky would rank in the third or fourth quintiles overall as a state if it were healthier.

What can we learn from states that rank high?

Rather than wring our hands, let’s look at the successful states and ask how we can be more like them.

Hawaii and Alaska, the two states most disconnected from U.S. mainland, are Nos. 1 and 2. They share nothing in common other than the fact that their residents are outside a lot. There has been reasonable evidence that doing things outside, particularly during the winter, is helpful for people. It does more to boost mood than exercise alone.

Other high-ranking states include South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine. All of these states have a winter culture. You can’t stay inside all winter in Maine.

Being active outside does other things: It puts you in touch with other people. You see your neighbors, you make connections. People are happy with their communities when they’re comfortable with people. If you’re inside and you don’t know your neighbor, this connection will not occur. Connecting with other people you can trust is very important; it clarifies the idea that you have a purpose in life.

Moving forward, what can Tristate residents do to improve our own well-being? We can’t make snow-capped mountains or a beach magically appear, but we can take small steps toward a healthier, happier quality of life. Here are six behaviors that could help.

1.    Take a 15-minute walk every day. Particularly when the weather warms up, try to get out for early morning walks, even if you just walk around your neighborhood or a park. Recently I came home from work and walked to a nearby park, which has hiking trail. Tromping around a trail after work, it turns out, is a great antidepressant. I saw a man looking at a tree, so I looked up, and there was an eagle in the tree. You never expect to see an eagle in Northern Kentucky. Then it flew. The man near me says, ‘That’s a big bird.’ You can’t be in a bad mood when you get home if you had a chance to see an eagle and see it fly.

2.    If the work you’re doing gives you no sense of purpose other than a paycheck, is mind-numbing – or worse – it goes against your ethics, make it an important priority to get out of that job. You may not be able to make this happen overnight, and it could mean going back to school or moving.

3.    Look for meaning in your work. It may be there and you’re not seeing it. I knew a bank teller who was very happy in that role. I asked, ‘Why do you like the work you do?’ She said she liked it because she had found meaning in doing really good customer service. She knew there were plenty of people in her line because they wanted her to help them. She took pride in that.

4.    Do what is meaningful to you. I remember an essay about an English professor who worked in an underpaid position as an adjunct university professor. After a round of budget cuts, he lost his job. He took a “placeholder” job as a house painter and for months explained that he was an English professor working temporarily as a painter. Then one day he said he was a house painter. He realized he was much happier not having to worry about being an English professor. He enjoyed talking to homeowners, making their homes beautiful. His life became better when he became a house painter.

5.    Be as healthy as you can be, which isn’t as healthy as the media says you should be. Use moderation, exercise restraint, try to get out and take walks. When my son was in graduate school, he figured out that life worked best when a day balanced three things: work, productive leisure (such as playing the guitar or going for a run), and unproductive leisure, such as sitting back and watching TV.

6.    Be aware of other people. If someone looks at you, say hello. There is an enduring story about a man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. A note found in his apartment said, “If anyone says hello to me on my walk to the bridge, I won’t do this.” You never know when saying hello might have value, either to you or someone else. This is why we should get out and take walks. It’s the reason old houses had big front porches. Connecting with people is important. It’s not just what they get out of it, but also what the connection does for you.

Scott Ries, MSW, LISW-S is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at UC and a clinician at the UC Mood Disorders Center.

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