How Cities Rank in the Well-Being of Their Residents

Metro areas earning top positions in the Gallup-Healthways survey are geographically diverse, but the Northeast continues to trail the rest of the country.
by | April 7, 2015
Honolulu ranked in the top five. (Wikimedia Commons/Steve Bozak)

Provo, Utah; Raleigh, N.C.; and San Jose, Calif.; are miles apart geographically and culturally, but they share at least one thing: a high sense of well-being among their residents, according to an index that ranks metro areas on factors that contribute to peoples’ productivity and health costs.

The 2014 Community Well-Being Rankings are the latest from the polling company Gallup and the consulting firm Healthways, both of which started surveying across the U.S. and abroad in 2008. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index surveyed residents to get a sense of their social, physical and financial health, as well as their sense of purpose and connections to their community -- all factors that contribute greatly to worker productivity, societal health costs and the economic competitiveness of a place, Gallup and Healthways argued.

“Those things are kind of hard to scientifically measure, but they’re very real and very significant, and those are the things leaders can influence, most certainly,” said Dan Witters, Gallup’s research director on the index, in a phone interview.

The 2014 rankings are based on 55-question surveys of about 175,000 people across all 50 states. Gallup wouldn't go into heavy detail about the kinds of questions asked, but they covered a person’s sense of purpose (enjoying their livelihood, feeling motivated), social health (supportive relationships that energize), financial health (level of financial stress), community ties (attachment to a place, sense of pride) and physical health (often specific characteristics like body-mass index).

Each community, defined as a metropolitan statistical area under the U.S. Census Bureau, received a rank in each category according to the strength of the responses from their residents and an overall rank as well.

Taking the top spot was Florida’s North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton area, which performed especially well in financial and physical health. Honolulu, Raleigh, California’s Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura area and El Paso, Texas, rounded out the rest of the top five. El Paso was the only community to take the top ranking in two categories: sense of purpose and physical health.

The South, Southwest and West Coast dominated the top 30, where only one Northeast city, Boston, appeared.

Honolulu and Utah’s Provo-Orem have consistently scored among the top communities, but so have the San Jose area (8th this year), Washington, D.C. and its Virginia suburbs (9th this year), San Francisco (12th this year) and Minnesota’s Twin Cities (17th).

Ohio fared poorly, with five of its major cities in the bottom 10 percent. Also finishing near last were Indianapolis, Ind. (96th); Knoxville, Tenn. (98th); Scranton, Pa. (94th); and Detroit (92nd).

This year’s survey featured a couple notable changes. First, it was limited to the 100 largest metro areas, whereas previous years featured upwards of 200 areas. Secondly, the latest index includes questions on social health and community attachment that were “pretty much entirely absent from the old model,” Witters said. “We’ve done enough research since 2007, and we knew it had to be in there, that it’d improve the efficacy of our model.”

Some cities are likely to chafe at a low ranking or dismiss the survey as overly subjective, but Witters pointed out that the survey did include objective physical health measures as well as subjective measures that “statistically earn their place at the table by demonstrating how they link with outcomes:” health-care utilization, absenteeism, per-capita violent crime, so forth.

“These questions are all there because they link to outcomes both at the individual level and population level, demonstrably so and repeatedly so,” Witters said.

Well-Being Index Data 

Gallup and Healthways ranked 100 metro areas on five components related to well being. Listed figures refer to a metro area's ranking.

Source: Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index