Midwestern states dominated U.S. News & World Report’s 2018 Best States review, released this week, surpassing their coastal neighbors in education, infrastructure, health care, and — the newest section of the report — quality of life.
Iowa, which placed sixth last year, jumped to first place overall as a result of claiming the top spot in infrastructure and the third in health care. Next in line for overall ranking was Minnesota, followed by Utah, North Dakota, and New Hampshire.
As in years prior, researchers analyzed thousands of data points from McKinsey & Company’s Leading States Index to decide on a final list. The ultimate goal, according to U.S. News & World Report, is to end up with a ranking that reflects how well states are performing for their citizens. To do this, researchers normally break it down into seven sections: health care, education, economy, opportunity, infrastructure, crime & corrections, and fiscal stability.
This year, they added an eighth category: quality of life.
It’s an interesting addition, one that speaks to a nation more divided than ever and communities desperately in search of their best selves. In this case, that addition led to an interesting conclusion. While quality-of-life discussions tend to revolve around the fun-filled streets of big cities like Chicago, or the warm, inviting beaches of places like Los Angeles, this list paints a very different picture.
The state with the highest quality of life wasn’t on either coast but smack-dab in the middle of America: North Dakota. The midwestern winner was followed by nearby states Minnesota and Wisconsin, with New Hampshire and South Dakota rounding out the top five. On the quality of life ranking, California came in last.
To anyone who’s spent time in our great state, it’s not a surprise @usnews ranked North Dakota #1 in quality of life. A strong sense of community & supporting each other are important ND values that help make our state so wonderful. https://t.co/m5SIdyL7iz
— Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (@SenatorHeitkamp) February 27, 2018
So what is quality of life, anyway, and what does it say about where we should be living?
In the U.S. News & World Report ranking, quality of life is defined as a combination of outside influences and interpersonal ones, or more specifically: natural environments and social environments. To measure natural environment, the researchers analyzed things like a state’s drinking-water quality, air quality, and pollution — all of which can affect long-term health. To study social environment, they focused on community engagement, voter participation, and time spent with family and friends.
While both natural and social environments were weighted at 50 percent of the quality-of-life score, an expert in quality-of-life research, Joseph Sirgy, PhD, says that splitting the score between those two factors really limits the result to areas with cities that are cleanest.
“It seems to me the reason why California came up last is because the natural environment is based on pollution,” Sirgy tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “If you focus only on pollution, California has a lot of problems. But that doesn’t take into account the absolutely marvelous aspects that are unique to that state, such as the beach and the mountains.”
The idea of being proactive about choosing where you live in order to improve your quality of life is one way to look at the topic. But other researchers take an opposite approach: If you live in a place with a low quality of life, why not try to fix it?
Julie Willems Van Dijk, the Director of the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, does just that. Through County Health Rankings she measures the overall health of every single county in each state. The program’s website allows Americans to not only find out how healthy their community is but also learn ways to improve it.
“What we were striving to do is not just say who is doing best or worst but use it as a call to action to see where they could change things in their community to improve health,” Willems Van Dijk tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So by separating the health factors, we’re saying, ‘Here’s where you are doing well, and here are strategies you can deploy to improve that.”
County Health Rankings makes action a priority. In a section titled “What Works for Health,” the organization offers detailed outlines of changes that an individual citizen can make to improve the scores in a county. Under air and water quality, for example, it provides information about alternative fuel, which can help reduce emissions. In another section labeled Social & Economic Factors, it provides ideas to help individuals with low access to mental health treatment find alternatives, such as a cellphone-based support group.
“To understand why quality of life in your state is not good, you need to look under the hood. Maybe it’s about neighbors not talking to each other, or about people not getting out and voting. Whatever it is, the next step is figuring out what they can do,” says Willems Van Dijk.
So wherever your state falls on this U.S. News & World Report lineup, rest assured that there are ways to improve your community and your quality of life. California, we’re looking at you.
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