Peter Reichard: If you feel like something is ‘off,’ you are not alone

Utahns are not feeling as good about their lives today as they did four years ago.

Utahns just aren’t feeling as good about life today as they were four years ago. That’s one of the big takeaways from the latest Utah Foundation report, “The 2022 Utah Personal Quality of Life Index: Is the Well-Being of Utahns in Decline?”

The report focuses on personal quality of life – based on a survey where Utahns rate their well-being on a series of seven factors. In 2022, the Personal Quality of Life Index stands at 76 out of a possible 100 points. This is a decrease from 82 points in 2018.

The seven factors of personal well-being that make up the Personal Quality of Life Index relate to happiness generally, health, relationships, finances, purpose in life, spirituality and work. Remarkably, all seven factors in the Personal Quality of Life Index declined between 2018 and 2022.

An earlier report in the project series focused on Community Quality of Life. It found a similar decline during the same period – from 70 to 64.

Placed alongside the simultaneous decline in community quality of life, a picture emerges of a Utah where overall well-being is in decline. This is particularly noteworthy during a time when Utah’s economy has strongly outperformed the nation’s. Our research revealed that housing costs and other rising living costs emerged as key drivers of the decline in the Community Quality of Life Index. Meanwhile, financial security is the lowest performing factor in the Personal Quality of Life Index. These factors are clearly interrelated.

In the face of swollen housing prices, rising interest rates, a rocky stock market, recessionary signals and inflation spikes not seen in four decades, Utahns may have reasons to worry about their financial security. A checking account containing $10,000 in 2018 has dwindled to the equivalent of roughly $8,500 in 2022 buying power. It’s noteworthy that those with higher incomes reported higher personal quality of life on every factor in our survey.

But it’s not all about money. Nationally, mental health went into steep decline beginning in 2020. Homicides surged. Drug overdoses spiked. Meanwhile, the surge in electronic entertainment device usage suggests that we’re self-medicating through technology. And an increasing chorus is suggesting that this is having a deleterious impact, particularly on teenagers and particularly when it comes to social media. It doesn’t help that we’re seeing declining trust in national institutions, increasing political polarization and a national media profit model built on drama, rancor and fear.

To be sure, the public sector can act to improve community quality of life, and that may have knock-on benefits for personal quality of life. The findings from the community report suggested a need for promoting the production of quality, affordable housing and exploring other ways to reduce the cost of living. They also suggested investing in the built environment and enhancing land use policies to promote attractive, high-quality developments and streetscapes that are pedestrian friendly and include key amenities; building on policies and programs aimed at improving air quality; and investing in transportation and transit infrastructure to reduce traffic and improve the quality of roads and highways.

When it comes to challenges like inflation, Utah is subject to national levers and, perhaps more importantly, broad market forces. However, when considering the efficiency of the public sector, policymakers should keep in mind that taxpayers will ultimately foot the bill for waste or empire-building government ventures. Given what those taxpayers are saying about their cost of living and financial outlook, it is becoming more critical to make tax dollars count.

Peter Reichard is president of the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy organization. Reach him at peter@utahfoundation.org. Find more research and register for upcoming events at www.utahfoundation.org.