While levels of personal satisfaction vary considerably across the world, they are generally associated with wealth – people in rich countries tend to express more satisfaction with their lives than do those in poorer countries. In the economically advanced countries of Western Europe, Canada and the United States, for example, people are relatively happy with their lives. When asked to place themselves on a “ladder of life,” where zero represents the worst possible life and 10 the best possible life, 71% of Canadians rate their life at least a seven, and in Spain (66%) and the United States (65%), more than six-in-ten respondents place themselves on the top rungs of the ladder (ratings of 7-10).1
Living in prosperous nations is no guarantee of satisfaction, however. Fewer than half in the relatively well-off countries of Italy (48%), Germany (48%), and Japan (43%) rate their lives high on this scale, though no more than 10% in any economically advanced nation rates their lives on the bottom rungs (ratings of 0-3).
And living in a less wealthy nation does not preclude a high level of personal satisfaction. Mexicans emerge as the most personally satisfied public in the survey – 76% rate their current life at least a seven. Brazilians (63%), Venezuelans (60%) and Argentines (59%) also tend to be satisfied with their lives, and fewer than 10% in any Latin American nation give their lives a low rating.
In other regions however, fewer people rate their lives near the top of the ladder. In Eastern Europe, personal satisfaction is highest in the Czech Republic – one of the region’s wealthier countries – although even here, only 42% place themselves in the high category; this is a lower percentage than in any of the six Western European nations surveyed. Meanwhile, Russians are roughly as likely to rate their lives in the low category (21%) as the high category (23%), and in Bulgaria, those at the bottom of the ladder (30%) outnumber those at the top (17%) by nearly two-to-one.
In the Middle East, fewer than three-in-ten Lebanese, Jordanians, Turks, Egyptians and Moroccans rate their lives a seven or better. Among Palestinians, the picture is even bleaker – 29% are in the lowest group and 24% are in the high category. Israelis stand apart from the rest of the region, with 68% in the top group.
The lowest levels of life satisfaction are found in Africa. Just 10% of Tanzanians and 7% of Ugandans position themselves on the latter’s top rungs. Elsewhere the situation is less gloomy – 37% of Ethiopians are in the high category, along with 36% of South Africans and 35% of Nigerians. Overall, however, the African publics surveyed trail those in other regions.
The chart below illustrates more clearly the overall relationship between wealth and satisfaction. In general, as a country’s per capital GDP increases, so does the percentage of people in that country who rate their lives near the top of the scale. As a result, African nations tend to cluster in the lower left of the chart, indicating low levels of wealth and low levels of life satisfaction, while the countries of Western Europe appear in the upper right, due to their wealth and high levels of satisfaction.
Of course, even though the association between per capita GDP and satisfaction is quite strong (.72 correlation), some countries and regions are more or less satisfied than their level of affluence would suggest. Latin Americans are generally happier than economics alone might predict, while Eastern Europeans and Japanese are gloomier than would be expected.
Perceptions of Progress
In most of the countries surveyed, majorities or pluralities say they are at a higher spot on the ladder of life than they were five years ago. And this is true even in many countries where overall assessments of life remain relatively grim. For example, very few Kenyans or Ugandans place themselves in the top rungs on the ladder of life; nevertheless, 55% of Kenyans and 54% of Ugandans rate their current lives more highly than their lives of five years ago. In fact majorities or pluralities in nine of ten African country surveyed say they are better off now.
The Chinese are more likely than any other public to say they are better off today than they were five years ago – roughly six-in-ten Chinese (62%) believe their lives have improved. Elsewhere in Asia, nearly half of Malaysians (48%) and Indians (45%) give their current life a higher rating.
Many people in other regions also believe their lives have gotten better over the last five years. More than half of Kuwaitis (56%) say they have made progress. In Peru, 52% are at a higher spot on the ladder now, and in neighboring Argentina, 48% have made progress, a striking change from 2002, when only 19% of Argentines felt they had made progress over the prior five-year period. Nonetheless, as is the case in many countries, about as many Argentines say they have either lost ground (28%) or stayed the same (23%) over the past five years, as say they are better off.
And perceptions of progress are not prevalent everywhere. In Italy and Bulgaria, pluralities say they are at a lower spot on the ladder today than they were five years ago. And in the heart of the Middle East, people are even more likely to feel they have lost ground – 58% of Lebanese, 57% of Palestinians, and 42% of Jordanians say they currently occupy a lower rung on the ladder of life than five years ago.
Optimism for the Future
Regardless of how they feel about their current situation, publics throughout the world generally are inclined to believe their personal lives will improve over the next five years. In nearly every country surveyed, majorities or pluralities expect to be at a higher point on the ladder of life five years from now.
Optimism is especially common in the developing world. While people in wealthy countries tend to give their current lives higher ratings than do people in poorer countries, those in poor countries are more likely to think their spot on the ladder will improve over the next five years. For example, despite the many challenges faced by countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the region stands out as the most optimistic in the world. Roughly nine-in-ten respondents in Mali, Ivory Coast and Senegal believe their lives will improve, as do large majorities in six of the other seven African nations included in the survey.
Optimism also characterizes most Asian countries, including the growing economic giants, India and China. Eight-in-ten Indians and 76% of Chinese believe their lives will get better in the coming five years.
Most Latin Americans also are optimistic; at least half of those in the seven Latin American countries surveyed say their position on the ladder will improve. Brazilians are particularly hopeful, with 71% saying they expect their lives to be better in five years and only 7% giving their future lives a lower rating.
The picture is a bit more mixed in the Middle East. Moroccans, Kuwaitis, and Israelis are generally hopeful about the future. Elsewhere in the region, optimism is not as strong, although optimists consistently outnumber pessimists, even in places that have experienced conflict in recent years, such as Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
As the chart below highlights, the relationship between wealth and optimism is almost the direct inverse of the relationship between wealth and current life satisfaction. In general, the richer a country is, the smaller the share of its citizens who believe their lives will improve over the next five years. So in this case, the relatively poor nations of Africa tend to group together near the upper left of the chart, indicating low per capita GNP and high percentages of optimists, while Western European countries cluster near the lower right, due to their wealth and to the fact that fewer Westerners think their lives will be better in five years. Of course, one reason relatively few in Western Europe and other economically advanced nations see their lives getting better is that they give their current lives rather high marks.
Again, even though the association between wealth and optimism is strong (-.56 correlation), there are outliers, as several countries are considerably more or less optimistic than economic situation would predict. The Czech Republic – the wealthiest of the Eastern European nations included on the survey – is even less optimistic than its level of affluence would suggest. On the other hand, both the Kuwaiti and South Korean publics are more optimistic than would be expected. And consistent with previous studies of American exceptionalism, the U.S. emerges as notably more optimistic than the nations of Western Europe and other economically advanced countries.
Changes Over Time in Personal Well-being
As noted above, a country’s affluence is a good predictor of its overall level of life satisfaction, as richer countries tend to have more satisfied citizens. However, when explaining changes in life satisfaction over time, economic growth is a better predictor than wealth.
Some of the greatest gains in personal satisfaction have occurred in nations experiencing sharp increases in economic growth since 2002. In particular, Argentina, Ukraine, and China stand out for their remarkable economic growth and concurrent shift in positive ratings on the ladder of life. At the same time, Canada, Bolivia and Italy are notable for their meager GDP growth and low gains (in Italy’s case, a slight decline) in personal satisfaction.
As with any linkage between broad economic statistics and personal evaluations, there are important exceptions. Russia has experienced 42% growth in per capita GDP over the past five years, but the share of Russians rating their lives in the top category has risen only slightly, from 18% in 2002 to 23% today. Similarly, despite substantial economic gains in percentage terms across much of sub-Saharan Africa, only in Ghana has life satisfaction improved substantially. At the other end of the spectrum, the greatest growth in personal contentment occurred in Brazil and Mexico, both of which experienced only modest GDP growth over the past five years.
Still, there is a reasonably strong relationship between growth and changes in life satisfaction (correlation = .38) – generally, countries that have enjoyed the greatest economic growth over the last five years also tend to have experienced the greatest increases in life satisfaction. There is a stronger correlation (.55) between change in GDP and personal progress – people in countries that have had higher growth rates are significantly more likely to say their lives are better now than five years ago. And while the relationship between personal optimism and economic growth is somewhat weaker (correlation = .31), several countries that have experienced impressive growth since 2002, such as Argentina (36% optimists in 2002, 59% now), Poland (36% optimists in 2002, 49% now), and China (65% optimists in 2002, 76% now) have also seen the largest increases in the percentage of people who believe their lives will improve over the next five years.
The relationship between economic growth and improvement in personal well-being becomes even clearer if one combines all three key measures of well-being – current life satisfaction, personal progress, and personal optimism – into a single measure. Thus, we created a simple index of change in well-being by adding the change for each country from 2002-2007 on current life satisfaction, personal progress, and personal optimism. For the 35 countries where trends are available, there is a strong correlation (.59) between a country’s level of economic growth since 2002 and its score on the change in well-being index.
In general, countries such as China, Ukraine, and India that have had strong economic growth since 2002 have also experienced the largest increases in personal well-being, as measured by the index. The largest gains in well-being have occurred in Argentina, which has enjoyed relatively strong economic growth over the last few years, following a virtual economic collapse in 2001. On the other hand, countries with more stagnant economies, such as Ivory Coast, Italy, and France, have experienced stagnant or even declining well-being. Meanwhile, as noted above, some nations, including Kenya and Peru, have seen more improvement on the well-being measure than their level of economic growth would have predicted, while Indonesia, Nigeria, and others have seen declines in well-being despite relatively strong growth.
Overall, middle income countries have enjoyed the largest increases in well-being – among these nations, the median change on the well-being index from 2002-2007 is +24. This category includes a number of Latin American countries such as Argentina (+66) and Peru (+43), as well as rapidly growing Eastern European countries such as Poland (+35), Bulgaria (+28), and Slovakia (+26).2 Meanwhile, well-being has also increased among low income countries, albeit much more modestly (median = +4). However, with a median of -6, the nine wealthy nations included in the survey have actually lost ground over the last five years. This high income category includes the United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, the Czech Republic, and all four Western European nations for which trends are available (Britain, France, Germany, and Italy).
The relationship between wealth and changes in well-being is mirrored in the relationship between wealth and economic growth. Once again, it is the middle income countries that stand apart, having enjoyed the largest gains in GDP growth since 2002. Among the countries in the middle income category, the median economic growth over this five year period is +28 percentage points, led by China with an astonishing 58-point jump. Overall, low income countries have also seen widespread economic expansion (median = +18). Among high income countries, however, there has been somewhat less growth – at +11%, the level of growth in the United States since 2002 equals the median for the high income category over this time period.