The Possibility Index

by Scott Barry Kaufman, November 24, 2017 in Blog

I recently had the pleasure of partnering with U.S. Bank to help bring greater awareness of the 2017 “Possibility Index“. This index measures how Americans are doing and feeling in their workplaces, homes and spare time, as well as how they talked about their lives online. The Possibility Index score represents the average of four categories– work, home, play, and conversation.

I thought I’d highlight some of the most fascinating findings, and how it relates to my own research. In my field of positive psychology, we are starting to understand the most important predictors of well-being and happiness. These findings aren’t only coming from self-report and surveys, but also new ways of assessing content on social media, an up-to-now untapped resource for understanding well-being. I believe that the information provided in this index can inform a more general understanding of human flourishing as well as the strategies people use online to maintain a certain image that might not reflect their actual reality.

One interesting finding is that chatter around family, love and neighbors was the most popular topics of conversation. This is interesting considering that these more social related variables are very strong predictors of well-being and happiness around the world. The need to belong and find connection is a basic human need, and research shows that this need is worth more than a new Ferrari! That’s right, when the currency is life satisfaction, friendship is worth about $180,000. The conversation index findings highlight the real need for people to connect with each other.

The index results also suggest that the nation is doing and feeling the best at home (51), followed by play (40). Americans seem to be well rounded in the area of play, with all variables from disposable income to exercise showing nearly the same result.

These findings are most certainly contributing to the relatively high conversation score, as people are posting the fun things they are doing with friends and family. Also, since the home is a great potential source of love and connectedness, it’s worth noting that the home score was higher than the play score.

Within the home category, the highest scoring national variables were crime rate followed by insurance coverage and commute times. These are all clearly important variables for well-being. In fact, studies show that while money past a certain point (about $50,000) doesn’t lead to happiness. The key isn’t spending money, but spending money well.

Particularly, research shows that if money is put toward increasing meaningful social experiences, helping others, personal growth, or managing time better, then money can boost happiness. It’s not hard to see how using money toward reducing commute time would make people more positive and hopeful about the future.

Another key finding is that with an index score of 38, the Work category presents the country’s biggest opportunity for improvement. Notably, the Work score was dragged down by median household incomes.

Which leads us to perhaps the most fascinating finding of them all: Americans are more positive on social media about their lives and prospects than the real-life data indicates they should be. Unlike the other components of the Index, conversation scores were not measured by quantitative data. Instead, U.S. Bank analyzed the sentiment and passion of online posts and comments, gathering qualitative information.

In terms of the positive sentiment of the posts, people are about just as positive about work and home. However, when it comes to passion on social media, work was strikingly the highest, followed by home and play, despite the fact that the overall objective work index score was the lowest of them all.

These findings suggest to me that work-related variables are important to people, and people may be exaggerating on social media their household incomes. This might be an adaptive social strategy to increase perceptions of social status, but this doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality of the situation.

I believe this has implications for new “Big Data” studies in positive psychology that attempt to glean the truth of the state of mind of people based on their social media posts. On the one hand, great new research by the “World Well-being Project” at Penn (upon which I am a collaborator) shows that optimism, as reflected by social media posts, is correlated with health and well-being. In fact, optimism on social media posts has been found to be a better predictor of heart disease than all other objective health markers combined (this includes indicators such as smoking and cholesterol)!

On the other hand, these findings suggest that we shouldn’t take the optimism of social media posts at face value, especially when it comes to factors that increase the possibilities for work. We should still focus on the real possibilities for helping to increase people’s opportunities for work, regardless of the positivity and passion they present on social media.

One of the most replicable findings in positive psychology is that the more we invest in self-care, the more we can really be in position to help others. Boosting economic opportunities for people to invest their money in positive social relationship and personal growth will only lead to increases in societal well-being, a very worthy goal for everyone.

To learn more about the 2017 U.S. Bank Possibility Index visit: https://www.usbank.com/en/possibility_index

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