Throughout much of the world, rising incomes are improving national conditions and increasing life satisfaction. While people in rich countries generally remain happier with their lives, the rest of the world is catching up, and looking into the future, people from poor and middle income countries are the most likely to think their quality of life will improve in the coming years. Citizens from these countries are also the most likely to favor the key tenets of economic globalization, welcoming both international trade and multinational corporations.
Meanwhile, in economically advanced nations, such as the United States, Japan, and throughout Western Europe, the picture is a bit different. Economic growth has been relatively modest, evaluations of national conditions have grown more negative, and these publics have grown apprehensive about the global economy.
Moreover, personal well-being has reached a plateau in many wealthy nations. Citizens of these countries remain happier with their lives than do those from poorer nations, but there has been little improvement in recent years. Generally, when explaining the way people feel about their current lives, a country’s wealth is key, however when explaining improvement in personal well-being over time, a country’s economic growth is a stronger predictor.
For example, publics in Latin America and Eastern Europe – where per capita GDP has risen markedly in recent years – rate their lives and national conditions far more favorably than they did in Pew’s 2002 wave of interviewing. The same is true in China and India, both of which have experienced sizable gains in real income, and where publics are substantially happier today. The pattern is less pronounced, however, elsewhere in Asia. And in sub-Saharan Africa, where per capita GDP has increased in many nations, overall satisfaction measures are up modestly, at best.
Nonetheless, Pew’s 47-nation survey finds that GDP growth is tied to rising levels of personal well-being. Countries with rapidly growing economies have generally experienced increases in the percentage of people who give their current lives a high rating, the percentage who think their lives have improved over the last five years, and the percentage who believe their lives will improve over the next five years.
Overall, the “middle income” countries are experiencing the most economic growth, the largest gains in personal well-being, and the greatest increases in national satisfaction. This group of countries includes a number of Eastern European countries, as well as nations like Argentina, which has rebounded from a devastating economic crisis earlier in the decade, and China, where soaring growth rates have led to increased life satisfaction and sky-high ratings for the national economy. These countries are now enjoying the fruits of economic globalization, and they continue to express solid support for many of the key features of a globalized economy – international trade, multinational corporations, and free markets.
However, no one is more enthusiastic about economic globalization than the citizens of lower income countries. Growth in these countries is generally more modest than in middle income nations, and they have not experienced the same large increases in personal well-being. But, while they have not yet fully benefited from participation in a global economy, they welcome global commerce and investment – trade and foreign companies receive their highest marks in some of the poorest countries in Africa and Asia. Throughout the world, people have worries about globalization – its effects on tradition and national culture, its impact on the environment, its potential for adding to the gap between rich and poor – but low income publics clearly embrace its key economic features, despite the downsides.
Some aspects of globalization are becoming less popular, however, in the economically advanced countries of Western Europe and elsewhere. In particular, Americans have grown more anxious about trade – the percentage of Americans who believe trade is good for their country has plummeted from 78% in 2002 to 59% today, the lowest share of any public included on the survey. Only 14% say trade is very good for America. Views of foreign companies have also grown more negative in the United States, as well as other high income countries.
Whether it is globalization, national conditions, or life satisfaction, trends in wealthy nations are either stagnant or even negative, especially when compared to middle income and poorer countries. There is a strong correlation between wealth and personal satisfaction, and citizens of wealthy countries do give their current lives higher ratings, but having reached a relatively high level on the “ladder of life,” these publics have experienced little improvement over the last five years, and although many see their lives improving in the future, they are not as optimistic as those in the developing world. In general, these countries have experienced weaker economic growth, and their citizens are increasingly displeased with their economic conditions and the state of their countries more broadly.