Don Cunningham: Why are Americans So Unhappy?

By Colin McEvoy on April 12, 2018

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on April 11, 2018. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

I’d say the toughest job in marketing is producing television commercials for prescription drugs.

It’s the only product with a law that requires telling the consumer every possible downside of using it. Forced honesty and advertising are a tough marriage.

The result is a commercial with 30 seconds of a happy couple in matching ceramic bathtubs oddly placed in a field of grass and dandelions and then, boom!

“Use of this product may cause depressed mood, trouble concentrating, sleep problems, crying spells, sudden numbness or weakness, blurred vision, nausea, and vomiting.”


Imagine a car commercial with the far-too handsome Matthew McConaughey, thick, wavy hair in a tuxedo, navigating the Pacific Coast Highway and, then, bam!

“In due time, this car will break down, every service visit to the dealership will cost at least $500, even for an oil change, and a recall notice will arrive every six to 12 months.”

As the commander of the remote in our living room, I typically employ the mute button for all commercials. The pharma ads are exempt because I think they’re funny. My favorite side effect warning is this one:

“While taking this medication, avoid regions where fungal infections are common.”


This one is like being a UFC fighter and getting a leg swipe and a punch to the face at the same time. Why should I avoid those regions? And, more importantly, where are those regions? No answers are provided.

I’ve yet to arrive at an airport or drive across a state line and be warned: Welcome to a region where fungal infections are common.

I wonder if the people living there are aware? Are the doctors in the fungal infection region allowed to prescribe these drugs?

When you spend your days studying your own region, learning its strengths and weaknesses, comparing and contrasting it to others and then selling us versus them, these things become important.

I don’t believe the Lehigh Valley is in the fungal infection red zone. Allergies, well, that’s a different story.

I read a lot of research reports to better understand the Lehigh Valley economy and how it compares to other states, cities and regions. Recently, the 2017 State of American Well-Being crossed my desk. This one is an annual survey of 2.5 million Americans conducted by Gallup-Sharecare to create a Well-Being Index of every state and major metropolitan region in the U.S. based on five elements of well-being: purpose, social, financial, community and physical.

Purpose is defined as liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals. Social is having supportive relationships and love in your life. Financial means managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security. Community is about liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community. Physical is defined as having good health and enough energy to get things done daily. There is no fungal infection category.

The Lehigh Valley is bucking the national trend in American Well-Being, according to Gallup.

The national score experienced its largest single year decline since Gallup began its well-being poll in 2007. The Lehigh Valley ranking, however, rose 28 places in one year to the 89th best region in the country for well-being. The region scored higher last year in four of the five categories, only in the social section did we decline, signifying a possible down year for love life in the Lehigh Valley.

While this doesn’t call for billboards on Route 22 proclaiming, “The Lehigh Valley: 89th best place in America for Well-Being,” the trajectory is interesting. The Gallup study contains much doom and gloom regarding America’s mood.

The report reads, “Overall, 2017 was a challenging year for America’s well-being. The overall drop was characterized by declines in 21 states, easily the largest year-over-year decline in the 10-year history of the Well-Being Index. Not a single state showed statistically significant improvement compared to the previous year, which is also unprecedented in Well-Being Index measurement.”

Pennsylvania was one of those states that declined, dropping from 30th to 34th. Lancaster and Pittsburgh joined the Lehigh Valley as regions that improved, and the only state regions to outrank the Lehigh Valley.

The survey is interesting, but I do think it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Most of the scores are separated by a single decimal point or less. For example, South Dakota ranks first with a score of 64.1. Vermont comes in second at 64.09. Pennsylvania (61.2) outranks Oregon (61.1) but is two positions behind Michigan (61.3). In a horse race, they’d call these photo finishes or winning by a nose hair.

For the curious, the top five states in America for well-being are South Dakota, Vermont, Hawaii, Minnesota and North Dakota. The bottom five are West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma.

The climate similarities could mean there is something to the fungal infection matter, since they are less likely to occur in the cold of the Dakotas, Vermont and Minnesota. As for Hawaii as an outlier, well come on, it’s a series of islands in the middle of the South Pacific, not as much a state as an island paradise with a lot to make you forget about your infection.

Kidding aside, there is a disturbing trend in the data. The unhappiness in America today appears to be more about emotional and psychological issues than economic ones. Americans are less happy now than they were during the Great Recession, according to the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index. In 2009, money and financial worries topped the list. Today, emotional and psychological factors are paramount. Loneliness has become a societal issue as 40 percent of adults now say they are lonely, double that of in the 1980s.

This also could just be a blip. Respondents may have had a bad day when surveyed, possibly their team just lost the Super Bowl or they just finished watching a prescription drug commercial.

Maybe the pharma industry could lobby to remove the side effect requirement in advertising as a way to improve the Well-Being Index score in America next year. Stay tuned.

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