RALEIGH – I spent much of my Monday afternoon delving into cross-cultural survey data, and I’m quite happy about it.
I don’t know that I’m very happy about it, however. That turns out to be a critical distinction. In the World Values Survey, which I decided to check out after reading a Christian Science Monitor article about public sentiment in Europe, findings on the public’s subjective well-being – happiness, more precisely defined – are reported within four categories: very happy, quite happy, not very happy, or not at all happy.
The piece grabbed my interest because it showed the United States ranked lower than 12 other countries in “net happiness.” That clashed with my recollection of recent surveys by Harris Interactive in the U.S. and the European Commission that showed Americans to be more optimistic and pleased with their lives than all but a handful of European populations. The two statements didn’t seem congruent. I wasn't at all happy about it, in part because claims about public sentiment in America and Europe are often used to support or undercut proposals on education, tax policy, income redistribution, and other policy issues.
When I pulled down both sets of data and examined them, however, I began to understand what was going on. For one thing, the Harris questions used terms such as “satisfaction” and “improvement in personal situation” to probe public sentiment while the World Values Survey asked explicitly about both satisfaction and happiness. It’s reasonable to assume that some respondents would make a distinction between the two, while others would see them as either synonymous or highly correlated. And, indeed, the WVS found different outcomes on the satisfaction and happiness questions in many countries. Nigeria, for example, topped the list in the percentage of respondents saying they were happy, but were closer to the middle of the pack in the share saying they were satisfied. Also, in many countries, young people are more likely to report themselves as happy than as satisfied. For older people, it’s the reverse.
Researchers believe it likely that questions about happiness tend to elicit emotional or off-the-cuff responses, while questions about satisfaction prompt respondents to sit back for a moment, think about their past and future, and provide a more considered reply. That’s not to say that “satisfaction” is a better term for probing subjective well-being than “happiness” is. It’s just different.
That being said, it seems to me that from a policy standpoint, measurements of satisfaction are a bit more useful in determining whether countries are making public-policy choices that tend to maximize the ability of individuals and their families to accomplish their goals over time. I’m not denigrating the importance attached to personal happiness, but its causes would seem to be further removed from the realm of public policy – in spheres of marriage and religious experience, for example – than those of satisfaction.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that the WVS scholars have generated a lot of useful insights by taking the mean of the happiness and satisfaction scores and then correlating it with other indicators. Happiness/satisfaction rises with gross national product, though not perfectly. It also rises with the presence of civil and political liberties, as measured by Freedom House rankings.
Having learned a lot more about international comparisons of subjective well-being – and stumbled across a fascinating cultural map of the world based on the WVS data – I ended the day with a clear sense of satisfaction. Happiness would have to wait until I got home and called my kids.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.