That's essentially the question asked by Gallup's Well-Being Poll. Its results for 2009 are in. America's well-being in 2009 looked an awful lot like it did in 2008. Actually, it looked identical -- according to the Overall Well-Being Index Composite Score. Given what an awful recession the U.S. was in during 2009, you might suspect shenanigans. But the result kind of makes sense, when looking deeper into Gallup's methodology.
As you can see, the only sub-index score that actually increased year-over-year was the "Life Evaluation Index." So what was this mystical category of well-being that was so substantially better in 2009 that it overshadowed all of the other categories' decline? According to Gallup:
The Life Evaluation sub-index is based on the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale, which asks people to evaluate their present and future lives on a scale with steps numbered from 0 to 10, where 0 is the worst possible life and 10 is the best possible life. Those who rate today a "7" or higher and the future an "8" or higher are considered to be "thriving." Those who rate today and the future a "4" or lower on the scale are considered to be "suffering." The overall Life Evaluation Index score is calculated as the percentage of thriving Americans minus the percentage of struggling Americans.
I think that sort of makes sense, because it sounds like the Life Evaluation Index is more forward looking than the others. You may remember that 2008 was a year -- particularly the second half -- of great uncertainty and pessimism. The economic world as we knew it was crumbling around us. Americans likely didn't know what to think about their future, but it didn't look good.
In 2009, however, stability ensued. Even though unemployment increased and the recession continued, I find it completely plausible that people would have been more optimistic about the future in 2009 than in 2008. But given all that unemployment and recessionary agony, I'm also unsurprised that all those other sub-indices showed declines in 2009.
The Work Environment Index is particularly notable, since it had the largest decline. Gallup explains:
The Work Environment Index includes four items: job satisfaction, ability to use one's strengths at work, trust and openness in the workplace, and whether one's supervisor treats him or her more like a boss or a partner.
So what drove that down? How about unemployment increasing from 7.4% to 10%? It's hard to have trust in the workplace or feel like your boss treats you like a partner when you're worried a pink slip could be in your future. I know I never felt worse about my work environment when at a firm undergoing mass layoffs (before I came to The Atlantic!). And you can hardly use your strengths at work when there's little to do there, in an economy that has come to a near-halt.
As the net job losses come to an end (let's hope in 2010), this and other well-being factors might get better. But if 2010 turns out to be a completely stagnant year, that future optimism that held the line in 2009 could suffer and result in a lower overall well-being score for 2010. And if, somehow, we end up in a double-dip recession, then all bets are certainly off.