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Welcome to the ‘new normal’ of people expressing low rates of well-being, according to a report

More Republicans say they have had a harder time “thriving” in the last year than their Democratic counterparts, according to a new report detailing Americans’ perceptions of well-being.

Which party holds the White House “has a direct influence on how well (people) think their life is going, which is kind of fascinating, but it’s a consistent pattern,” said Dan Witters, research director for the Gallup National Health and Well-Being Index.

The index began in 2008, surveying adults in the United States to put out regular reports on the population’s well-being, behaviors and attitudes.

It categorizes people’s experiences as “thriving,” “struggling” or “suffering” based on how they rate their current life on a scale of 1 to 10, as well as what they anticipate in five years.

“Those who rate their current life a 7 or higher and their anticipated life in five years an 8 or higher are classified as thriving,” the report said.

The 2023 data published Thursday found that overall the percentage of people in the United States who consider themselves to be thriving was on the decline in 2023 — with 52.1% falling into this category, compared with 55.5% in 2021 and 52.8% in 2022. The results were based on a survey completed by more than 6,000 adults in all 50 states from November 30 to December 8.

And researchers saw differences along political lines.

The percentage of Democrats who considered themselves to be thriving was low in the second half of 2020 at 45.5% — compared with 60.1% of Republicans. But the number of thriving Republicans continued to drop dramatically over the next three years to 51.7%, while thriving Democrats surged in the next year and has remained at around 55%.

The drop in Republicans who say they’re thriving did not align exactly with the timeline of President Joe Biden taking office, however, which researchers suspect may have to do with other factors.

“We postulate that the rollout of the (Covid-19) vaccine and the associated widespread economic reopening that occurred in 2021 lent a buoyancy to how Republicans were thinking about and evaluating their lives,” Witters said. “That kind of kept their life ratings nice and high despite the fact that (Donald) Trump was out and Biden was in.”

A ‘new normal’ of low well-being

In general, the number of people in the United States who evaluate their lives highly enough to be considered thriving was low in 2023 in comparison with most previous years — continuing a disappointing trend the report calls a “new normal.”

“I think it’s a combination of so many systemic things,” said Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, a former primary care physician and now a certified stress mastery educator. “Everybody’s looking for this magic pill that’s going to change (feelings of low well-being), and what we really need is a shift in our expectations and a shift in our behaviors.”

The only other periods rated lower in thriving than 2023 occurred during the years of the Great Recession (2008-2009) and the first outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic (2020), according to the data.

Typically, the rate of people thriving follows closely with how well the economy is doing, Witters said. In 2023, the US had a year of good job growth, record stock market levels and good wages — even though inflation remained a problem, he added.

“Yet the thriving rate remains kind of doggedly low. It’s just sort of in a slump,” Witters said. “The fact that better economic indicators are not helping push that back up to 55% plus does indicate that there are other things going on that are kind of throwing sand in the gears of this thriving rate.”

When people see themselves as thriving

Researchers have good data on both the systemic and personal factors that go into how well people perceive they are doing, Witters said. And money also matters, he said.

“Demographically speaking, the thriving rate is going to go up with age and with income,” he said.

Incivility in political discourse may also be affecting people’s feelings of social wellness, Witters added.

But well-being is also influenced by the way people set up their lives, such as how they like what they do every day.

“Wherever you are in your trajectory in your life’s journey as a student, as a worker, as a retiree, as a stay-at-home parent or house manager, are you a good natural right fit for your job? Do you just like your life?” he said.

Another factor for those more likely to thrive is whether they have a chance to learn new and interesting things, Witters added.

Having someone in your life who cares about your health and wellness is also important, along with the ability to use your natural strengths, he said.

What is in our control — and what is not

Factors that affect well-being such as climate change, global tragedies and the economy may be out of an individual person’s control, but you can do certain things to take charge of thriving in your own life, Ackrill said.

When those systemic issues feel overwhelming, Ackrill said she sees it as a sign to let go of what is outside of her control.

Doing so is important to “keep my wits about me so I can make more rational decisions,” she said.

There isn’t a quick fix to the big problems plaguing systems and cultures, she said, adding it may take awhile to implement solutions to problems that developed over a long period.

It’s important to learn what tools can help you get to a place where you can make good decisions based on your values and long-term goals, Ackrill said. And so is having compassion for yourself when you aren’t at your best, she said.

“The guilt and shame make it worse,” she said. “Let’s not double dip on stress.”

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