From the desk of editor in chief,
Meher Kashif Younis:
How happy are people today? Were people happier in the past? How satisfied with their lives are people in different societies? And how do our living conditions affect all of this? These are difficult questions to answer; but they are questions that undoubtedly matter for each of us personally. Indeed, today, life satisfaction and happiness are central research areas in the social sciences, including in ‘mainstream’ economics. (Ansar Malook Bhatti)
Social scientists often recommend that measures of subjective well-being should augment the usual measures of economic prosperity, such as GDP per capita. 1 But how can happiness be measured? Are there reliable comparisons of happiness across time and space that can give us clues regarding what makes people declare themselves ‘happy’?
In this entry, we discuss the data and empirical evidence that might answer these questions. Our focus here will be on survey-based measures of self-reported happiness and life satisfaction. Here is a preview of what the data reveals.
1- Surveys asking people about life satisfaction and happiness do measure subjective well-being with reasonable accuracy.
2- Life satisfaction and happiness vary widely both within and among countries. It only takes a glimpse at the data to see that people are distributed along a wide spectrum of happiness levels.
3- Richer people tend to say they are happier than poorer people; richer countries tend to have higher average happiness levels; and across time, most countries that have experienced sustained economic growth have seen increasing happiness levels. So the evidence suggests that income and life satisfaction tend to go together (which still doesn’t mean they are one and the same).
4- Important life events such as marriage or divorce do affect our happiness, but have surprisingly little long-term impact. The evidence suggests that people tend to adapt to changes.
The World Happiness Report is a well known source of cross-country data and research on self-reported life satisfaction. The map here shows, country by country, the ‘happiness scores’ published this report.
The underlying source of the happiness scores in the World Happiness Report is the Gallup World Polla set of nationally representative surveys undertaken in more than 160 countries in over 140 languages. The main life evaluation question asked in the poll is: “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”
There are large differences across countries. According to 2016 figures, Nordic countries top the ranking: Finland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Iceland have the highest scores (all with averages above 7). In the same year, the lowest national scores correspond to Central African Republic, South Sudan, Tanzania, Rwanda and Haiti (all with average scores below 3.5).
Findings from the World Value Survey
In addition to the Gallup World Poll the World Value Survey also provides cross country data on self-reported life satisfaction. These are the longest available time series of cross-country happiness estimates that include non-European nations.
The World Value Survey collects data from a series of representative national surveys covering almost 100 countries, with the earliest estimates dating back to 1981. In these surveys, respondents are asked: “Taking all things together, would you say you are (i) Very happy, (ii) Rather happy, (iii) Not very happy or (iv) Not at all happy. This visualization plots the share of people answering they are Very happy or Rather happy.
In the majority of countries, the trend is positive: In 49 of the 69 countries with data. from two or more surveys, the most recent observation is higher than the earliest. In some cases, the improvement has been very large; in Zimbabwe, for example, the share of people who reported being ‘very happy’ or ‘rather happy’ went from 56.4% in 2004 to 82.1% in 2014.
More than averages the distribution of life satisfaction scores
Most of the studies comparing happiness and life satisfaction among countries focus on averages. However, distributional differences are also important.
Life satisfaction is often reported on a scale from 0 to 10, with 10 representing the highest possible level of satisfaction. This is the so called ‘Cantril Ladder’. This visualization shows how responses are distributed across steps in this ladder. In each case, the height of bars is proportional to the fraction of answers at each score. Each differently-colored distribution refers to a world region; and for each region, we have overlaid the distribution for the entire world as a reference.
These plots show that in sub-Saharan Africa the region with the lowest average scores the distributions are consistently to the left of those in Europe. In economics lingo, we observe that the distribution of scores in European countries stochastically dominates the distribution in sub-Saharan Africa.
This means that the share of people who are ‘happy’ is lower in sub-Saharan Africa than in Western Europe, independently of which score in the ladder we use as a threshold to define ‘happy’. Similar comparisons can be made by contrasting other regions with high average scores (e.g. North America, Australia and New Zealand) against those with low average scores (e.g. South Asia).
Another important point to notice is that the distribution of self-reported life satisfaction in Latin America is high across the board it is consistently to the right of other regions with roughly comparable income levels, such as Central and Eastern Europe.
This is part of a broader pattern: Latin American countries tend to have a higher subjective well-being than other countries with comparable levels of economic development. As we will see in the section on social environment, culture and history matter for self-reported life satisfaction.
Mis-perceptions about others’ happiness
We tend to underestimate the average happiness of people around us. The visualization shown demonstrates this for countries around the world, using data from Ipsos’ Perils of Perception a cross-country survey asking people to guess what others in their country have answered to the happiness question in the World Value. Survey.
If respondents would have guessed the correct share, all observations would fall on the red 45-degree line. All countries are far below the 45-degree line. In other words, people in every country underestimated the self-reported happiness of others. The most extreme deviations are in Asia South Koreans think that 24% of people report being happy, when in reality 90% do. The highest guesses in Canada and Norway are 60%this is lower than the lowest actual value of self reported happiness in any country in the world.
Why do people get their guesses so wrong? It’s not as simple as brushing aside these numbers by saying they reflect differences in ‘actual’ vs. reported happiness.
One possible explanation is that people tend to misreport their own happiness, therefore the average guesses might be a correct indicator of true life satisfaction (and an incorrect indicator of reported life satisfaction). However, for this to be true, people would have to commonly misreport their own happiness while assuming that others do not misreport theirs.
And people are not bad at judging the well being of other people who they know: There is substantial evidence showing that ratings of one’s happiness made by friends correlate with one’s happiness, and that people are generally good at evaluating emotions from simply watching facial expressions.
An alternative explanation is that this mismatch is grounded in the well-established fact that people tend to be positive about themselves, but negative about other people they don’t know. It has been observed in other contexts that people can be optimistic about their own future, while at the same time being deeply pessimistic about the future of their nation or the world. We discuss this phenome non in more detail in our entry on optimism and pessimism, specifically in a section dedicated to individual optimism and social pessimism.
The General Social Survey (GSS) in the US is a survey administered to a nationally representative sample of about 1,500 respondents each year since 1972, and is an important source of information on long-run trends of self-reported life satisfaction in the country.
Using this source, Stevenson and Wolfers (2008)6 show that while the national average has remained broadly constant, inequality in happiness has fallen substantially in the US in recent decades.
This is true both when we think about inequality in terms of the dispersion of answers, and also when we think about inequality in terms of gaps between demographic groups. They note that two-thirds of the black-white happiness gap has been eroded (although today white Americans remain happier on average, even after controlling for differences in education and income), and the gender happiness gap has disappeared entirely (women used to be slightly happier than men, but they are becoming less happy, and today there is no statistical difference once we control for other characteristics).
Why could it be that happiness inequality falls with rising income inequality? Part of the reason is that the growth of national income allows for the greater provision of public goods, which in turn tighten the distribution of subjective well-being. This can still be consistent with growing income inequality, since public goods such as better health affect incomes and well-being differently. Another possibility is that economic growth in rich countries has translated into a more diverse society in terms of cultural expressions (e.g. through the emergence of alternative lifestyles), which has allowed people to converge in happiness even if they diverge in incomes, tastes and consumption.