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New Normal: Lower U.S. Life Ratings

New Normal: Lower U.S. Life Ratings

by Dan Witters and Kayley Bayne

Story Highlights

  • 52.1% thriving higher only than Great Recession, COVID outbreak eras
  • Republicans’ thriving rate plummets nine points since first half of 2021
  • Those classified as “suffering” tops 4% for fifth time in six quarters

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The percentage of Americans who evaluate their lives well enough to be considered "thriving" on Gallup’s Life Evaluation Index averaged a subdued 52.1% in 2023, higher than only the Great Recession era reading in 2008-2009 (50.2%) and the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 (50.1%). Those periods are the only times in the Gallup National Health and Well-Being Index trend since 2008 when the percentage thriving was below 52.8% for a full year or more. Between 2015 and 2019, and in 2021, more than 55% were thriving.


The thriving rate for the most recent quarter (Quarter 4, 2023) was 52.2%, closely approximating the 2023 full-year average. That survey, conducted Nov. 30-Dec. 7, 2023, included 6,386 U.S. adults surveyed by web as part of the Gallup Panel, a probability-based, non-opt-in panel encompassing all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

For its Life Evaluation Index, Gallup classifies Americans as "thriving," "struggling" or "suffering" according to how they rate their current and future lives on a ladder scale with steps numbered from zero to 10, based on the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale. 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 percentage of Americans estimated to be “suffering” was 4.3% in Quarter 4, the fifth time in six quarters dating back to the second quarter of 2022 that it exceeded 4% -- a plateau rarely reached in more than 150 measurement periods dating back to 2008. The 2022 and 2023 average rates both exceed what was measured during the Great Recession, the previous high among the major time periods.


Thriving Rate Drops for Independents, Plummets for Republicans

Democrats’ thriving rate jumped substantially between the last half of 2020 and 2021, paralleled by more modest improvements among independents. Republicans’ life ratings held mostly steady, with only a slight decline in the latter half of 2021.

The lack of a decline among Republicans is noteworthy, given past shifts in life ratings among political partisans upon regime change to the U.S. presidency. It is likely attributed in part to being offset by the nationwide rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, coupled with widespread economic reopening by the spring of 2021. In the two years since that time, the thriving rate of both Republicans and independents has declined, with a 9.0-percentage-point drop among Republicans and a 2.6-point drop among independents. Democrats’ life ratings held steady during this period and, as a result, now have a higher thriving rate than either of the other two groups, reversing the rank order from 2020. As in 2020, independents now have a thriving rate below 49%, the lowest of the three groups.


Daily Stress and Worry Close 2023 at Typical Levels

In addition to general life ratings, Gallup tracks whether Americans have recently experienced specific emotions in their daily life, including stress and worry. Unlike the thriving rate, both metrics closed out 2023 at typical levels, with 40% of respondents in Quarter 4 reporting worry and 45% reporting stress “a lot of the day yesterday.”

Both stress and worry showed unprecedented increases in the first quarter of 2020, at the start of the pandemic, with stress rising 14 points to 60% (from 46% in Quarter 3, 2019) and worry rising 20 points to 58% (from 38%). These spikes were about four times greater than what was measured throughout 2008 during the Great Recession.

Americans’ reports of experiencing stress and worry returned to pre-pandemic levels by April 2021 and have remained fairly steady since that time. The current estimates for stress and worry closely match their respective three-year averages from 2021-2023 and underscore how long-term trends in general life ratings can manifest differently than the likelihood of experiencing significant amounts of certain emotions on any given day.



Since 2021, when the thriving rate rebounded from the pandemic to match that of the high point recorded in 2015-2019, the average percentage of Americans classified as thriving has declined three points, representing about 8 million fewer people at this level. This has occurred alongside the worsening of several other key indicators of wellbeing, including rising depression diagnoses and several aspects of physical health. Since transitioning from a pandemic in 2020-2022 to an endemic disease in 2023, COVID-19 is having considerably less influence on Americans’ general life ratings, reflecting both a majority-vaccinated public that is less weary of the disease coupled with greatly loosened restrictions in broader economic activity than what were initially implemented.

Regardless of the absence of wide-ranging economic shutdowns, economic factors are likely continuing to play a role in the prolonged erosion of thriving percentages, as Americans are still recovering from the previous record-high inflation rates experienced the past two years. Despite continued job growth and an unemployment rate of 3.7%, Americans remain discouraged about personal finances while views of the U.S. housing market have reached record lows.

Beyond economic factors, the languishing thriving rate could be related to more Americans now believing that crime is a serious problem and personal safety fears reaching their highest level since 1993. Other potential influences could include domestic political incivility and division, the Israel-Hamas war, and Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine.

Electorally, the drop in the thriving percentage -- particularly among independents -- is potentially bad news for Joe Biden’s reelection chances in 2024. Prior research involving data from 599 U.S. counties showed a strong link between low or declining life ratings and shifts from Democratic support in 2012 to Republican support in 2016 in the U.S. presidential elections.

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