Elmer Smith: We're still fat, but we're feeling better about it

WE HAVE finally achieved mediocrity.

After years of being poleaxed as the fattest, most depressed and ugliest city in America, Philadelphia has finished in the middle of the pack in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index of America's happiest and healthiest cities.

In this massive new study of American attitudes, Philadelphia finished 84th in a poll of the residents of 162 medium-to-large cities. While we're nowhere near as happy and healthy as people in Boulder, Colo., which finished first, we're happier by a half than folks in last-place Huntington, W. Va., a town with more strip mines and trailer parks per-capita than any comparable city in America.

In fact, Philadelphians, or actually those in the Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington region, are happier and healthier than folks in New York (94), Miami (121), Pittsburgh (96) and Detroit (122). We're even happier than people in Paradise, Nev. (145), where the so-called Las Vegas strip is situated.

After being maligned in Men's Health magazine, which listed us as America's most out-of- shape city in 2001 and came back four years later to list us as the city with the most-depressed population, this could do wonders for our flagging self-image.

Unless you look at some of the places we trail in health and happiness. I suppose we could live with finishing behind Chicago (76), Los Angeles (71) and maybe even Boston (29). But Baltimore (73), Trenton (25) and Atlantic City (69) all finished in front of us, as did Lancaster and Harrisburg.

The findings that threatened my personal health and happiness were that Huntsville, Ala. (40), and Killeen, Texas (13), are both happier and healthier than we are. What do they have to be so happy about?

With all due respect to the impressive scholars who devised the scale, their assessment of their own work calls all their standards into question.

Their findings represent, the authors say, "today's voice of the people."

They say that it is "the most ambitious effort ever undertaken to measure what people believe constitutes a good life. Who is feeling good about life and who is in need of a helping hand."

The overall good news, they say, is that "America's collective well-being is slightly higher this June than through the summer of 2008."

You can't help but be impressed with the weight of the research. They tracked the well-being of 1,000 U.S. residents for 350 days last year, excluding only major holidays. The results are reported daily and then averaged on a weekly and monthly basis.

Sounds good until you look at what they asked these 1,000 people to measure. One standard, which they call "life evaluation," asks respondents to imagine a ladder with steps numbered from 0-to-10 with "0" being the worst possible life they could imagine.

"Thriving Americans say they stand on step seven and expect to stand on step eight in five years," the authors explained.

The emotional-health index asks respondents to think about yesterday and whom they were with, what they did and how they felt. For instance, did they smile or laugh or feel that they were being treated with respect, or was there sadness, anger or stress?

Philadelphians, it turns out, ranked 96th in emotional health, 80th in physical health and 129th in work experience.

The state assessments made even less sense to me. Hawaii just barely edged out Utah, home of the Salt Lake, America's own dead sea, as the top-rated state. West Virginia, where everybody seems like family, finished last behind Kentucky and Mississippi.

Pennsylvania finished 32nd among the 50 states, in a dead heat with Alabama. Both finished well below the national average.

All this "scientific" data really shows is what people think about life in the towns they live in. Judging by the way the average Philadelphian talks about this town, it's a wonder we finished this high.

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith