How happy are people today? Were people happier in the past? How satisfied with their lives are people in different societies? & how bởi our living conditions affect all of this?

These are difficult questions to lớn 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.

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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 và empirical evidence that might answer these questions. Our focus here will be on survey-based measures of self-reported happiness & life satisfaction. Here is a preview of what the data reveals.

Surveys asking people about life satisfaction và happiness vày measure subjective well-being with reasonable accuracy.Life satisfaction và happiness vary widely both within and among countries. It only takes a glimpse at the data to lớn see that people are distributed along a wide spectrum of happiness levels.Richer people tend khổng lồ say they are happier than poorer people; richer countries tend khổng lồ 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 lớn go together (which still doesn’t mean they are one & the same).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 lớn adapt lớn changes.
The World Happiness Report is a well-known source of cross-country data và 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 Poll—a 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 lớn 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?” (Also known as the “Cantril Ladder”.)

The bản đồ plots the average answer that survey-respondents provided to this question in different countries. As with the steps of the ladder, values in the bản đồ range from 0 lớn 10.

There are large differences across countries. According to năm 2016 figures, Nordic countries đứng 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 lớn Central African Republic, South Sudan, Tanzania, Rwanda & Haiti (all with average scores below 3.5).

You can click on any country on the bản đồ to plot time-series for specific countries.

As we can see, self-reported life satisfaction correlates with other measures of well-being—richer & healthier countries tend to have higher average happiness scores. (More on this in the section below.)


The Eurobarometer collects data on life satisfaction as part of their public opinion surveys. For several countries, these surveys have been conducted at least annually for more than 40 years. The visualization here shows the giới thiệu of people who report being ‘very satisfied’ or ‘fairly satisfied’ with their standards of living, according khổng lồ this source.

Two points are worth emphasizing. First, estimates of life satisfaction often fluctuate around trends. In France, for example, we can see that the overall trend in the period 1974-2016 is positive; yet there is a pattern of ups and downs. & second, despite temporary fluctuations, decade-long trends have been generally positive for most European countries.

In most cases, the giới thiệu of people who say they are ‘very satisfied’ or ‘fairly satisfied’ with their life has gone up over the full survey period.2 Yet there are some clear exceptions, of which Greece is the most notable example. Add Greece to lớn the chart and you can see that in 2007, around 67% of the Greeks said they were satisfied with their life; but five years later, after the financial crisis struck, the corresponding figure was down to lớn 32.4%. Despite recent improvements, Greeks today are on average much less satisfied with their lives than before the financial crisis. No other European country in this dataset has gone through a comparable negative shock.


We tend khổng lồ 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 lớn the happiness question in the World Value Survey.

The horizontal axis in this chart shows the actual giới thiệu of people who said they are ‘Very Happy’ or ‘Rather Happy’ in the World Value Survey; the vertical axis shows the average guess of the same number (i.e. The average guess that respondents made of the mô tả of people reporting lớn be ‘Very Happy’ or ‘Rather Happy’ in their country).

If respondents would have guessed the correct share, all observations would fall on the red 45-degree line. But as we can see, 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 this sample (Canada và Norway) are 60%—this is lower than the lowest actual value of self-reported happiness in any country in the sample (corresponding to lớn Hungary at 69%).

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Why bởi 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 lớn 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 lớn be true, people would have lớn commonly misreport their own happiness while assuming that others vì 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, và 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 lớn 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 phenomenon in more detail in our entry on optimism và pessimism, specifically in a section dedicated to lớn individual optimism and social pessimism.


Differences in happiness within countries

In this section

East và West Germany

In global surveys of happiness and life satisfaction, Germany usually ranks high. However, these national averages mask large inequalities. In the maps shown we focus on regional inequalities—specifically the gap in life satisfaction between West và East Germany.

This bản đồ plots self-reported life satisfaction in Germany (using the 0-10 Cantril Ladder question), aggregating averages scores at the level of Federal States.3 What stands out is a clear divide between the East & the West, along the political division that existed before the reunification of Germany in 1990. For example, the difference in levels between neighboring Schleswig-Holstein (in West Germany) and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (in East Germany) are similar lớn the difference between Sweden and the US – a considerable contrast in self-reported life satisfaction.

Several academic studies have looked more closely at this ‘happiness gap’ in Germany using data from more detailed surveys, such as the German Socio-Economic Panel (e.g. Petrunyk và Pfeifer 2016).4 These studies provide two main insights:

First, the gap is partly driven by differences in household income and employment. But this is not the only aspect; even after controlling for socioeconomic và demographic differences, the East-West gap remains significant.

And second, the gap has been narrowing in recent years, as the chart shows. In fact, the finding that the gap is narrowing is true both for the raw average differences, as well as for the ‘conditional differences’ (i.e. The differences that are estimated after controlling for socioeconomic and demographic characteristics).

The observation that socioeconomic và demographic differences vì chưng not fully predict the observed East-West differences in self-reported happiness is related to lớn a broader empirical phenomenon: Culture & history matter for self-reported life satisfaction—and in particular, ex-communist countries tend to lớn have a lower subjective well-being than other countries with comparable levels of economic development.

Trends in life satisfaction for East & West Germany, 1992-2013

Happiness inequality

Happiness inequality in the US & other rich countries

The General Social Survey (GSS) in the US is a survey administered lớn 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.5

Using this source, Stevenson & 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.

The authors further chú ý that 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 chú ý that two-thirds of the black-white happiness gap has been eroded (although today trắng Americans remain happier on average, even after controlling for differences in education and income), and the gender happiness gap has disappeared entirely (women used lớn be slightly happier than men, but they are becoming less happy, & today there is no statistical difference once we control for other characteristics).7

The results from Stevenson và Wolfers are consistent with other studies looking at changes of happiness inequality (or life satisfaction inequality) over time. In particular, researchers have noted that there is a correlation between economic growth và reductions in happiness inequality—even when income inequality is increasing at the same time. The visualization here uses data from Clark, Fleche và Senik (2015)8 shows this. It plots the evolution of happiness inequality within a selection of rich countries that experienced uninterrupted GDP growth.

In this chart, happiness inequality is measured by the dispersion — specifically the standard deviation — of answers in the World Value Survey. As we can see, there is a broad negative trend. In their paper the authors show that the trend is positive in countries with falling GDP.

Why could it be that happiness inequality falls with rising income inequality?

Clark, Fleche, and Senik argue that 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 và well-being differently.

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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 lớn converge in happiness even if they diverge in incomes, tastes and consumption. Steven Quartz và Annette Asp explain this hypothesis in a new york Times article, discussing evidence from experimental psychology.