Does Meaningful Work Contribute to Life Satisfaction?

In my last post I expressed disappointment that the authors of an article about material prosperity and life satisfaction did not acknowledge the sense of achievement that many people obtain from their work.

How do I know that meaningful work contributes to life satisfaction? It would be easy enough to make a fairly long list of people I know who probably get a great deal of satisfaction from their work. I expect many readers could make similar lists. There is also some research evidence on this question.

It is well known that unemployed people tend to have much lower levels of life satisfaction than people in other workforce categories (including those who have retired). The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index indicates, however, that unemployed people also tend to have much lower levels of satisfaction with what they are achieving in life. There is also a marked difference in satisfaction with ‘achieving in life’ between employed people who are looking for alternative work and those not looking for work. Robert Cummins et al, authors of the report, suggest that low satisfaction with what they are achieving in life may be one of the main reasons why people seek to change their employment. The authors add: ‘Many employed people gain a great sense of ‘purpose in life’ from their employment, and having a sense of purpose is central to wellbeing’ (See: Report 17, April 2007, p. 164-5 and Figures 8.9 and 8.18).

Research on the relative contributions to life satisfaction of orientations to pleasure, engagement (the psychological state that accompanies highly engaging activities) and meaning (pursuit of a meaningful life) is also relevant. Christopher Peterson, Nansook Park and Martin Seligman have found (using data from an internet survey) that orientations to engagement and meaning have a greater impact on life satisfaction than does pleasure. The authors also found somewhat higher life satisfaction scores for respondents simultaneously near the top of all three orientations and notably lower scores for respondents simultaneously near the bottom of all three orientations (‘Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life’, Journal of Happiness Studies, 2005).

A short article by Amanda Horne on the ‘Positive Psychology News Daily’ site refers to research by Michael Steger and Bryan Dik which suggests that meaningful work is associated with people developing a sense of identity which comes from knowing ‘who they are, how their world works and how they fit in with and related to the life around them’ and ‘people’s identification of, and intention to pursue, particularly highly valued, over-arching life goals’ (Chapter on finding meaning at work in Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work).

One of the points emphasised by Peter Warr, the author of extensive research on happiness in the workplace, is whether individuals want to be in the role they have been assigned, the value to them of different role characteristics and the attractiveness of core tasks. He suggests that such matters can have major implications for individual happiness. Warr also notes:

Some happiness is not actually accompanied by feelings of pleasure, or satisfaction of desires. This second form of happiness invokes reference standards of some kind, perhaps some realization of personal potential’ (‘Searching for happiness at work’, The Psychologist, Dec. 2007).

Some people might wonder why people who claim to get a great sense of achievement from their work often require high levels of remuneration for their services. I think this might have a lot to do with rationing of their time. Successful actors, sporting professionals, business leaders, artists etc. can be fairly sure that by requiring high levels of remuneration their services will be purchased by people who will appreciate them. They also know that can always give their wealth away if they feel embarrassed by the amount they are accumulating for doing things they might be happy doing for nothing.

Consideration of the way high-achievers allocate their time raises some obvious questions about the importance to life satisfaction of an appropriate balance between work and home life and between different domains such as ‘achieving in life’ and ‘personal relationships’. That might be a good subject for a later post.

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Does Identity Economics Predict Happiness in Different Societies?

I get the impression from the methodology chapter of their recent book, ‘Identity Economics’, that George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton are not particularly interested in econometric tests of the predictive power of their theory. They suggest that it is difficult to falsify any theory because ‘even the most straight forward test has literally millions of possible specifications’ (p. 115). I think they are exaggerating, but even accepting their point it seems to me that useful knowledge may be gained by considering what predictions might follow from a new theory and how well those predictions describe aspects of the real world.

The key idea of identity economics is that people gain utility when their actions conform to the norms and ideals of their identity (or social category e.g. gender, race, social class, age group) and lose utility when they do not. We should expect this to be so if we accept that individual behaviour is strongly influenced by socialization and that norms of behaviour can differ between people in different social categories.

The key idea of identity economics suggests that, other things being equal, people are likely to be happier when they live in societies where there are few economic or social pressures for them to act in ways that are contrary to the norms and ideals of their identity. It is important to define what we mean by happiness in this context. I think the appropriate concept in this instance is emotional well-being, as measured in happiness surveys, rather than an all-inclusive concept of well-being explicitly incorporating such factors as wealth, health and education. It seems reasonable to expect that, other things equal, people with high levels of identity utility would be more likely to say that they are happy or satisfied with life than would people with low levels of identity utility.

It seems to me that one prediction we could make on the basis of identity theory is that people in homogeneous societies are likely to be happier than those in societies in which individuals have to interact with people who have different cultural backgrounds. We might expect that this effect would depend on the strength of ties to particular groups in multi-cultural societies, but we would expect homogeneity to be a plus for average happiness.

Is the evidence from happiness research consistent with this prediction? When I did a Google search using the words ‘happiness’ and ‘homogeneity’ the first results I saw seemed consistent with the prediction – people in countries that homogeneous (as well as affluent) tend to be the happiest. However, delving deeper, I found a more careful study for 65 countries, using multiple regression to control for other variables, which suggests that ethnic homogeneity may actually have a negative effect on average life satisfaction (Douglas Barrett, Kristen Van Rensselaer and Bruce Gordon, ‘Possible effects of national population homogeneity on happiness’, Journal of International Business Research, 6 (1), 2007).

The authors comment as follows:

‘The results suggest that life satisfaction is significantly negatively related to ethnic homogeneity in the presence of our control variables. This is consistent with the “melting pot” concept, as multiple cultural influences create a richer living environment’ (p. 55).

I’m not sure what a richer living environment actually means. Perhaps one way of thinking about it is that a richer living environment enables us to get some of the benefits of foreign travel (e.g. sampling foreign food) without leaving the country. I think the result may also be consistent with identity economics if we view successful multicultural societies as providing a learning experiences in which a substantial proportion of the population from all major ethnic groups have come to view themselves as tolerant of diversity. We should expect tolerant people to gain utility from acting in accordance with their ideals.

Does ‘Unhappy Growth’ Explain Failure to Adopt Economic Reforms?

Several researchers have noted that there is a tendency for average life satisfaction to be lower in the countries with high economic growth rates even though there is strong evidence that average life satisfaction is higher in countries with higher incomes. Carol Graham and Eduardo Lora have referred to this as the ‘paradox of unhappy growth’. In one recent paper Eduardo Lora (with Juan Camilo Chaparro) suggests that ‘unhappy growth’ may help to explain why some countries have been reluctant to adopt economic reforms that would lift economic growth rates (‘The conflictive relationship between satisfaction and income’, Nov. 2008).

This is an interesting view, but I doubt its validity. It seems to me that ‘unhappy growth’ could be a misnomer. Before explaining why I should try to summarise the authors’ explanations for ‘unhappy growth’. One explanation is in terms of an aspirational treadmill. Economic growth raises aspirations, so people experiencing high income growth may come to expect higher incomes and hence feel less satisfied with their current incomes than people experiencing low growth. The other explanation is that economic growth is often associated with structural changes that result in income losses to some groups as well as gains to others. As a result of loss aversion the average life satisfaction may decline while average income rises.

Both of these explanations seem plausible, but they leave us with a paradox. How can high incomes – which must have resulted from economic growth in the past – be associated with high average life satisfaction if economic growth reduces average life satisfaction?

There is a simple explanation that dissolves this paradox. The observation of lower average life satisfaction in the countries with higher growth rates might just reflect the shorter time that the people in the countries with higher growth have had to accumulate the capital necessary to enjoy the fruits of their current income levels. Consider two countries which currently have similar per capita incomes, one of which has experienced rapid growth over the last couple of decades and one which has experienced low growth. It would be reasonable to expect that per capita net wealth would be lower in the high-growth country than in the low-growth country because people in the former country have had less opportunity to accumulate wealth from their current incomes. People with lower per capita net wealth could be expected to have poorer standards of housing and to feel less financially secure, so it is only to be expected that they would feel less satisfied with their lives. (This is similar to the explanation offered by Angus Deaton, namely that life satisfaction responds to the long-term average income, as in a permanent income model of life satisfaction. See: ‘Income, health and well-being around the world’).

There is some evidence that average life satisfaction is strongly influenced by net wealth. A study by Bruce Headey and Mark Wooden has shown, using Australian data, that wealth is at least as important to subjective well-being as is income (IZA Discussion Paper 1032, Feb. 2004).

There is also some evidence of a similar phenomenon with respect to education levels. Regression analysis suggests that there is a tendency for average education levels to be lower in countries with high growth rates, after controlling for income levels. This can be explained in terms of the time taken for accumulation of human capital. It would make no sense to attempt to explain it in terms of economic growth resulting in less education.

Finally, there is evidence in the following chart that people tend to perceive that their quality of life has improved in countries that have experienced relatively high growth rates. The perceived improvement in quality of life over the last five years can be calculated as the difference between the rating of life today and life 5 years ago using data from the Gallup World Poll. The chart plots perceived improvement in quality of life against per capita GDP growth rate for the period 2002-07 (based on rgdpl data from Penn World Tables) for 103 countries. The pink dots in the chart lie on a line fitted by regression.

The evidence of perceived improvements in quality of life in countries experiencing high economic growth rates is not consistent with the idea that economic growth makes people unhappy. I don’t accept that the failure of governments to adopt economic reforms can be explained by ‘unhappy growth’.

Do All Well-Being Indicators Tell Similar Stories About Human Flourishing?

Human flourishing is about enjoying the things that it is good for humans to have. It is more than economic opportunity; it is more than feeling happy or satisfied with life; it is more than safety and security; it is more than good health and longevity; it is more than educational opportunity; it is more than being free to choose how you live your life; it is more than the opportunity to participate in political processes; it is more than social capital; it is more than the opportunity to enjoy the natural environment. These things may all be relevant to human flourishing but no single aspect incorporates everything that contributes to individual flourishing. Any list of aspects of human flourishing is likely to be incomplete and include items that are more important to some individuals than to others.

Hopefully everyone who reads the above paragraph will consider it to be a statement of the obvious. However, the idea that there is more to life than feeling happy or satisfied actually seems to be quite controversial. Some happiness researchers, including some economists, seem to think that everything that is good for humans to have can be reduced to a single number reflecting feelings of happiness or satisfaction with life.

In an earlier post (What are the characteristics of a good society?) I suggested that nearly everyone would agree that a good society would provide its members with opportunities to flourish – to have more of the things that are good for humans to have. In another post (Is a good society index a good idea?) I foreshadowed that I would attempt to identify the suite of indicators that are most relevant to assessing to what extent particular societies might qualify as good societies. This post goes some way toward that objective. It presents indicators of the performance of various societies in relation to a range of aspects of human flourishing.

In the following table countries have been ranked by per capita income levels. The ratings of countries with performance in the top quartile for each indicator are shown against a green background, those for the second quartile are shown in yellow, the third quartile in orange and the fourth quartile in red.

The table shows that many well-being indicators tell a similar story about human flourishing. It also shows, however, that both per capita GDP and subjective indicators of the quality of life have limitations as well-being indicators. This is particularly evident in regard to societies such as United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Kuwait. (Many of the indicators used in the table are sub-indexes of the Legatum Prosperity Index. Indicators are defined and information sources are presented below the table.)


Income index: Real GDP per capita (rgdpl) for 2007 from the Penn World Table, expressed as a fraction of per capita GDP in the United Arab Emirates, the country with highest per capita GDP. Source: Alan Heston, Robert Summers and Bettina Aten, Penn World Table Version 6.3, Center for International Comparisons of Production, Income and Prices at the University of Pennsylvania, August 2009.
Quality of life index: Gallup World Poll data on “life today” (latest available) country averages, expressed as a fraction of the rating for Denmark, the country with the highest rating.

Safety and Security: A sub-index of the Legatum prosperity index. High ratings reflect the existence of a safe environment and peaceful society.

Health: A sub-index of the Legatum prosperity index measuring how well citizens are capable of living long and healthy lives.

Education: A sub-index of the Legatum prosperity index reflecting mainly the years of schooling that a nation’s citizens complete.

Freedom: A sub-index of the Legatum prosperity index which measures how well citizens are able to freely choose the course of their lives and their perceptions of societal tolerance.

Democratic Institutions: A sub-index of the Legatum prosperity index which reflects civil liberties, political rights, the independence of the judiciary etc.

Social capital: A sub-index of the Legatum prosperity index which reflects how well people are engaged in social networks and relationships that are trustworthy and supportive.

Environmental satisfaction: Gallup World Poll data on the satisfaction of citizens with efforts to preserve the environment in their country, presented in index form such that the highest rating country has a rating of 1.0 and the lowest rating country has a rating of zero.

Is Economic Growth Causing the Chinese to Become Discontented or Just More Optimistic?

In my last post I suggested that the reasons why rapid economic growth has not resulted in increased average life satisfaction in China over the last couple of decades have more to do with rising aspirations than with increased income inequality. In this post I want to consider those issues further.

My first point is that in recent years the Chinese have been about as satisfied with life as people in most other countries with comparable income levels. This shows up clearly in charts in Angus Deaton’s article, ‘Income, health and well-being around the world’ (“Journal of Economic Perspectives”, 22 (2)).

Second, survey evidence is not consistent with growing discontent caused by rising inequality – or by anything else. According to recent Gallup data about 66 percent of Chinese are satisfied with their standard of living and 83 percent say that their standard of living is getting better. A paper by Nicole Naurath show that in 2008 over 80 percent of Chinese claimed that economic conditions were getting better in the city or area where they live and that it was also getting better as a place to live.

Third, there is evidence that life satisfaction in China is more strongly influenced by satisfaction with income growth (i.e. satisfaction with income now compared with income in the past) than with either absolute or relative incomes. The results of a study by Lina Song and Simon Appleton do not support the view that dissatisfaction with relative income is a major cause of social discontent in China (“Life Satisfaction in Urban China”, IZA DP: 3443, 2008).

Fourth, Andrew Deaton found in his cross-country study, cited above, that while level of per capita income has a positive effect on life satisfaction, economic growth has a negative effect. His results suggest that it would be normal for the negative effect of economic growth to outweigh the positive effects of increases in income levels in countries that are experiencing rapid economic growth (see Table 2 in his article). Deaton argues that his results are consistent with life satisfaction responding to the long-term average income, as in a permanent income model of life satisfaction.

Fifth, the ratings that the Chinese give to the quality of their lives five years ago and five years into the future suggest that large upward revisions are occurring in their aspirations. The Gallup data for 2008 indicates that the Chinese rated their lives five years ago less highly than just about every country in the world outside Africa. The rating they give to their lives five years ahead is higher than that in some western European countries. When they appraise their current quality of life in five years time they will realize that they still have somewhat further to go before attaining “the best possible life”. But they are not likely to become discontented while they continue to experience the economic growth they have come to expect.

I think the lesson to be learned from consideration of the relationship between average life satisfaction and rising per capita incomes in China is that the failure of life satisfaction to rise with income does not necessarily imply discontent with the consequences of economic growth. Those who suggest that economic growth has led to widespread discontent in China are mistaken. Economic growth has merely cursed the Chinese with great expectations.

The Chinese Are Becoming Wealthier, So Why Aren’t They Happier?

This is the question raised in a recent article in the Journal of Happiness Studies: “The China puzzle: falling happiness in a rising economy”, by Hilke Brockman, Jan Delhey, Christian Weizel and Hao Yuan (V10, 4, 2009).

The focus of the study is the decade from 1990 to 2000. Even though real per capita GDP in China was 2.8 times higher in 2000 than in 1990, the percentage of Chinese describing themselves as very happy declined from 28 percent to 12 percent and the average life satisfaction rating fell from 7.3 to 6.5 (on the WVS 10 point scale).

The authors consider three possible explanations: anomie (powerlessness), political disaffection (declining trust in government) and relative deprivation (frustration because increased income inequality resulted in a higher proportion of the population with below average incomes). Anomie is measured by survey data on the lack of a feeling of free choice and control over the way you live your life. Political disaffection is measured by survey data on lack of trust in the government and parliament. Survey data on financial dissatisfaction (dissatisfaction with the financial situation of your household) is used as a proxy for relative deprivation.

To cut a long story short, the authors conclude that relative deprivation provides the best explanation because the decline in life satisfaction is strongly associated with a decline in financial satisfaction. (A fuller summary of the article is available on Psyblog )

The main problem I have with this conclusion is that data presented in the article suggests that average life satisfaction of high income earners declined along with the life satisfaction of those on lower incomes. There was no reason for the high income earners to feel relative deprivation.

When I look closely at the data it seems to me that the main puzzle is not why average life satisfaction in China was lower in 2000 than in 1990, but why such a high proportion of Chinese were recorded as satisfied with life in 1990. This figure, 68 percent, was higher than in such high income countries as Austria, France, Germany and Japan.

When you look at average life satisfaction of people in different age groups (Fig. 1) older people seem to have been much happier than young people in 1990 and the situation has been partially reversed since then. A comparison of Figure 1 and Figure 2 shows similar patterns for life satisfaction and financial satisfaction. This suggests to me that the apparent decline in average life satisfaction between 1990 and 2000 might possibly be attributable to perceptions by older people that their financial security had declined for some reason e.g. concerns that as a result of social changes young people might be less likely to support them in their old age.

Even if we disregard the 1990 data, however, it is apparent from the Figures that we are still left with the problem of explaining why average life satisfaction and financial satisfaction has not increased since the mid 1990s. The decline in consumption as a percentage of GDP from about 50 percent around 1980 to about 32 percent in recent years cannot provide a complete explanation, because this has not prevented real per capita consumption from increasing substantially.

My guess is that the failure of average life satisfaction to rise in China is associated with a change in the benchmarks that people use to assess their current well-being. In 1990 many people in China may have been using past living standards as the benchmark in assessing their current satisfaction with life. Since then, however, their aspirations have probably risen as they have come to view the living standards enjoyed in high income countries as attainable in the foreseeable future. If I am right most Chinese people would probably agree that “they have never had it so good”, to borrow an unsuccessful political slogan. But those old enough to remember what life was like 30 years ago would probably rather forget about that.

Note: The subjective well-being data referred to above is from the World Values Survey. Gallup data also shows no increase in subjective well-being in China. See:

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What Makes a Planet Happy?

I find it hard to take seriously the concept of a happy planet. Is Earth happier than Mars? How would we know? It seems to me that only sentient beings can be happy, but that might just reflect the limited perspective of a sentient being. For all I know a rock might have a completely different perspective.

The happy planet index constructed by the New Economics Foundation (nef) doesn’t actually attempt to compare the happiness of different planets. What it attempts to do is to assess how happy our planet is with what is happening in different countries. I hope that makes you smile because if you take the happy planet index too seriously I think you are at risk of becoming unhappy – and that might make the planet unhappy!

The countries that are given the highest ratings in nef’s index are Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Guatemala and Vietnam. These places don’t seem to me to offer the ideal of a good life for the people who live in them, even though many of these people say they are satisfied with their lives.

The authors claim that the results show that a good life is possible without “costing the earth”. Andrew Norton has pointed out that the results do not support this conclusion. Average happiness levels are relatively low in several countries that are ranked among the top 50 in the happy planet index.

As defined by the nef the happy planet index is a productivity measure. The numerator (or output measure) is happy life years, measured by multiplying average life satisfaction levels by average life expectancy. The denominator (or input measure) is a linear function of the average “ecological footprint”, which is a measure of the total amount of land required to provide all resource requirements plus the amount of vegetated land required to absorb CO2 emissions.

The basic idea seems to be that “the planet” becomes happier when people in a particular country become happier without using more “land” or when people maintain their current happiness level while using less “land”.

How do we know that this is what makes the planet happier? How do we know that the planet cares whether or not humans are happy?

My point is that the happiness of the planet only exists in the mind of the human who thought up the idea of the happy planet index. There is nothing wrong with trying to imagine what it would be like to be a planet that has feelings, but this is a game that anyone can play. Some people could imagine, for example, that the happiness of the planet will rise if more CO2 is produced. After all, CO2 is food for plants and planets like plants. Don’t they?

It would be possible for everyone on earth to have their own happy planet index that takes account of the things that they imagine that the planet might value. It would probably be preferable, however, to come down to earth and acknowledge that there is potential for everyone on the planet to vary in the extent to which they value various things that are important to them.

If nef’s happy planet index serves a useful purpose I think it is to remind us that surveys that measure our subjective well-being do not necessarily take into account all the things that are important to us. When we report how satisfied we are with life we take account of the things that are most salient to us at the time. We don’t necessarily take into account our own future well-being and the well-being of future generations of family members, let alone the well-being of other relatives and friends, the well-being of other humans, the well-being of animal pets, the well-being of other living things, or other matters that might be important to us.