In the last couple of years, I’ve taken to writing down interesting things and experiences in a journal that I imagine I’ll come back to and read years from now, maybe when my grandkids ask me what life was like when their parents – my kids – were younger. As I write, I know I’m missing things, but I try to get my thoughts down.

The ongoing list for 2021 is a doozy. That’s saying something when compared to 2020. Times of great joy. Friends and colleagues welcoming children into their lives. My daughter and her learner’s permit. Taking the train from Boston to Portland, Maine, and Acadia National Park. Mardi Gras with no parades, but still filled with the carnival spirit.

Some great loss, too. Saying final goodbyes to beloved family members. Division within communities of all sizes. Hurricanes, debris on the curb and all the blue roofs. COVID.

As human beings, our connections to other people and waking up in the morning with a sense of purpose are reasons to make our individual relationships better and to contribute positively to the world around us. The definition of what a positive contribution is may be relative to where we live and what we value, however.

As businesses and organizations, optimistic customers are willing to buy or donate. As employers, our teams want to know our purpose in the world, because more and more of our team members want to know their work is contributing to making the world a better place, from improving their own lives to making their communities better. In addition, in 2021 we’ve learned that businesses and organizations are viewed as primary sources of accurate, credible information for our team members, customers and supporters navigating an uncertain world of outlets bombarding us through our devices and screens.

So, where do we go from here – both in our personal and professional interactions? What can we expect or hope for in the year ahead? What is it we want to achieve and what will it take to get us there? How does the Gulf South differ in our views and perceptions moving forward, as compared to the rest of the country?


For many of us, happiness and meaning are derived from who we spend our time with – family, friends, even our work.

In 17 advanced economies around the world, including the U.S., people consider family a more significant source of meaning in their lives than anything else, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. Two of the three top categories that give life meaning in most countries are family and friends. The third is our occupation: the work we do every day and the people who we do it with.

In the U.S., family ranks first. Friends second. Occupation is fourth.

People responding to this question of meaning, spoke first about their relationships with parents, brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren. They discussed quality time with family and living a life that improves the world for generations to come.

Family and friends being central to our sense of meaning extends to the Gulf South. Another defining element of meaning for people in our region is our culture.

Earlier this year, we asked citizens what they believe to be true about the Gulf South. A solid 58% responded that we have a “distinct culture.” This answer was 18% higher than the rest of the country in regard to their own home regions. (GSI Fall Update, Sept. 2021).

People are at the heart of culture. The Gulf South is distinct in the American fabric of communities. Our cuisine, music, celebrations and families are unique. We spend our free time in certain ways, whether it’s hunting and fishing, at the beach or eating and dancing at festivals. Our culture is the essence of what makes life meaningful in the Gulf South.


Regardless of what we may hear from that one uncle or cousin during our holiday get-togethers, the people of the Gulf South are optimistic about the future. In fact, we share the same level of optimism today as the rest of the country.

Since March of this year, between 55% and 60% of Gulf South residents think the year ahead will be better for them personally than the year past. That is a stark contrast, though, to how Gulf South residents rate the current economy with 44% of people painting the economy two stars or below.

Nationally, nearly 70% of people thought that 2021 would be better than 2020 and 58% believe 2022 will be better than 2021. That is a decrease, but the optimist would point out that even though the trend went down, more than half of people nationally still think there are better things to come in the year ahead. People in the U.S. overall think the economy is a little better than do residents of the Gulf South where 36% rank the economy at two stars or below.


Back in January 2020, the first question we asked in the first edition of the Gulf South Index was whether the American Dream was still available today. At the time, 59% of Americans said it was. When we asked again in March 2020, right as COVID took hold in the U.S., the Gulf South was more optimistic about achieving the American Dream than the rest of the country, with 60% of Gulf South residents saying yes versus 53% of the rest of the nation.

This past September, half of the residents in the Gulf South said that the American Dream was achievable, compared to 59% of the rest of the country.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, citizens nationally held pretty consistent when it came to their view of the American Dream. In the Gulf South, though, things changed. What happened?

There’s a great deal of uncertainty in the Gulf South. The number of Gulf South residents who are unsure about the American Dream doubled between the beginning of the pandemic and now. A third of our neighbors are unsure about the future now. In March 2020, only 19% held the same opinion. Interestingly, fewer people in the Gulf South today say that the American Dream is NOT available to them – 16% in September 2021, compared to 21% in March 2020.

The bottom line is that even with the uncertainty facing the region and the nation, half of the people in the Gulf South still see their definition of the American Dream as reachable, and fewer people believe that it is not achievable at all. I’d put us as “cautiously optimistic.”


According to author Morgan Housel, “Everyone belongs to a tribe and underestimates how influential that tribe is on their thinking.” What we perceive as making our lives meaningful and how high we hold our culture in the Gulf South illustrates his point.

The circles of people in our lives are our tribe. We deem these people as credible because we trust them and identify with them. “We need to trust the people around us in order to live happy, productive lives,” according to Shane Parrish, founder of the Farnam Street blog and Knowledge Project podcast.

Mistrust, on the other hand, is expensive. “When we can’t trust each other, nothing works,” says Parrish.  “As we participate in our communities less and less, we find it harder to feel other people are trustworthy. But if we can bring back a sense of trust in the people around us, the rewards are incredible.”

There is great uncertainty in our communities today. We are bombarded with information through our devices and screens. We’re having conversations that are decades overdue. We are rebuilding our communities from devastating hurricanes and storms. As our towns and local economies reemerge from the valleys of 2020 and 2021, we look forward to enjoying the same or better experiences we remember from happier days.

For us to be successful as Gulf South communities, though, we must build trust. Citizens building trust with each other. Companies and organizations engaging with the audiences most important to them. We believe that trust is earned when we choose to interact with other people and share our point of view.

How we develop and share our words and ideas so that we educate, captivate and motivate is essential to engaging with the public and building the trust we need to succeed as businesses and communities.

This issue marks the end of the second year of the Gulf South Index. We are already working on new topics to explore about the people of this region in 2022. I’d like to thank my colleague, Traci Howerton, for her work to constantly find interesting things to write about and questions we can ask. We also want to thank our partners at Causeway Solutions for delving into the data to help us find out more about what we think, watch and buy.

In 2022, I will start a fresh page in my journal and fill it with new memories and experiences with the people I love the most, the people that give my life meaning. I’m optimistic about what’s to come. I’m also realistic about the hard work and realities that are in front of us.

Merry Christmas, y’all, and Happy New Year.


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The Gulf South Index is a cooperative project between The Ehrhardt Group, a public relations, content, issues and crisis firm, and Causeway Solutions, a nationally recognized research and data analysis company, that are both based in the Gulf South.

The Index delves into hundreds of thousands of data points to paint a better picture of how the millions of people living in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle are going about their lives. We want to find out more about how we make decisions, from what we are buying and how we are getting our news to where we plan to travel.

We cannot comment on the methodology of the surveys and research we did not conduct, which is why we do our best to link to the source articles or studies that we share here.

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