Monday, March 14, 2011

Personal Care Spending May Help Well-Being—But Not in Every Way

Does well-being correlate to spending on personal care? When I saw the well-being index compiled by the NYTimes* I cross-checked** it with the personal care spending data that was released in January. Note that “personal care” encompassed everything from makeup and skin care to gym memberships, which isn’t ideal (yes, gym memberships are “personal care,” but I think they’re a good deal different than an eyeshadow spree) but it’ll have to do. What I found was that spending more on personal care didn't significantly correlate to happiness, stress levels, or depression—but did significantly correlate to obesity.

1) The five cities that spent the most on personal care ranked 6.8% higher on overall well-being than the five cities that spent the least. Unsurprising: Money buys some aspects of well-being (say, access to health care) in addition to lipstick and gym memberships, so we need to figure out if it's about money overall, or just money spent on personal care. So:

2) Of the top 5 and bottom 5 cities in personal care spending, income correlations held true, meaning that cities that spent more on personal care made more money per capita. The top 5 cities had an average income of $61,838; bottom 5 raked in $53,260. But if you remove the top and bottom city—well-heeled Arlington, VA ($90,662) and down-at-the-heels Detroit ($33,035), each of which were way off the mean—the cities spending less on personal care actually come out $1,340 ahead in average income but remain lower on the well-being index. So there’s something else going on there besides disposable income one can drop on chemical peels. What else goes into well-being?

3) The Times evaluated 20 factors of overall well-being. These ranged from internal factors like happiness and job satisfaction, to external factors like access to health insurance and nighttime safety, to clear economic indicators like adequate food and shelter. Of the factors, I hypothesized that a handful of them might account for the difference in well-being between the cities that shelled out for personal care and those that didn't: stress, happiness, depression, obesity, exercise, and fruit and vegetable intake.

Overall, the cities that spent more on personal care also fared slightly better on those well-being indicators—but only slightly, nowhere near enough to account for the 6.8 percentage-point spread between the two groups. In fact, the only appearance-related well-being factor that was significantly different between the cities that spent the most and the cities that spent the least on personal care was obesity. Stress had a 0.6% difference; depression a 2.7%. But there was a 7.7% spread on obesity between the two groups of cities.

But—Health at Any Size advocates, listen up!—the exercise rates and fruit/vegetable intake weren’t that different between cities that spent a lot on personal care and those that didn't, with only a 2.6% and 2.2% spread, respectively. So people in regions that spend more money on things like exercise equipment don't actually exercise that much more (or eat many more fruits and veggies), but they still weigh less. (And then there's Austin, whose residents spend nearly five times more on personal care than the average of the bottom five cities, but exercise only 1.16% more. Without having a breakdown of how the personal care dollars are spent, it's impossible to know whether people in the high-personal-care spending cities are buying more big-ticket items like treadmills, or if they're getting massages or expensive hair treatments or if they all use Crème de la Mer or what. Personally, I like to believe that Austinites buy NordicTracks to hang their acoustic guitars on.)

In addition: External factors that appear to have nothing to do with personal care spending—nighttime safety, for example—seem to account for more of a difference in well-being among all communities, but are disproportionately weighted in the cities that ranked high and low in the personal care spending. This indicates to me that a greater amount of personal care spending might ameliorate internal factors that contribute to well-being—stress, depression, happiness—but doesn't do squat for the kind of things that can't be fixed by taking care of your body and appearance. Like, how safe you feel walking outside at night, or whether you can see a doctor when you need to.

Bottom Line:
Unless you’re really rich or really poor, there doesn’t seem to be a great correlation between how much you make and how much you’re willing to spend on personal care. And the numbers bear out that spending more might make you a little happier (or maybe you’re happier because you’re going to the gym or playing with lipstick), but doesn't, in aggregate, do squat for the factors that have a greater impact on your overall well-being. 

The biggest difference in well-being that I measured in the cities spending the most and least in personal care was access to health insurance. I liken this to the research that indicates that money can make you happier—up to $75,000, that is. It seems that personal care can help equalize some of the factors that contribute to well-being, but not the ones that require real, actualized change. Your stress levels, your happiness, how much you exercise—these, to a certain degree, you can control, and things like fitness equipment and the occasional blowout can contribute. But sculpted abs or a Brazilian can't compensate for lack of access to health care, or feeling unsafe in your community is at night. Those, it seems, require action in the public sphere.

*I'll trust their data, just not their bullshit excuse for casually mentioning the appearance of a rape victim. The Public Editor has a more comprehensive take, thankfully. Jezebel dissects the events nicely,
as does Poynter.

**Methodology, if you can call frantically tabulating numbers on my calculator app while sipping office Flavia “methodology”: The Times’ well-being index is charted by congressional district, so I looked at the congressional districts that represent the cities of the top 5 communities and bottom 5 communities for personal care spending. Where the cities span multiple districts I averaged the districts. Per capita income for the districts found here.