Here we go again. That was my first thought when I recently saw a map of the U.S. that was color coded by congressional district for “well-being.” My eye was drawn immediately to the distinctive shape of my home state of Kentucky. Except for Louisville, where there’s great theater and gracious living, it was tinted entirely in the dark hue reserved for America’s most unhappy people. The Gallup-Healthways study that generated the map ranked Kentucky 49th out of 50 states in overall well-being. (West Virginia was 50th.) I’ve always felt a twinge of resentment at any portrayal of my fellow Kentuckians as backward rubes. And now on top of that stereotype, Gallup is layering an image of misery as well.
But maybe I’m no better. I put a tint of my own, a rosier one, on Kentucky. I still have strong family ties there and visit often, but I moved away as a boy. As a result, I tend to see Kentucky through a nostalgic haze, as a green wonderland of bourbon and horses, oak forests, and cool hollows. When I go to my grandparents’ shaded hillside grave, I think of their hardy self-reliance, not the isolation of their small town. Maybe a study like this one is what it takes to remind people like me—and those Kentuckians in Washington, D.C., and Louisville who may have lost touch—that horses, bourbon, and natural beauty are only part of the state’s story. Grinding poverty is another, and it feeds unhappiness. Those of us who love Kentucky will continue to bristle at stereotypes. But Gallup just tallied up the results of questionnaires. It was Kentuckians who told us of their plight.
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