Australian Bureau of Statistics
1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2007
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/01/2007
|Page tools: Print Page RSS Search this Product|
LIFE SATISFACTION AND MEASURES OF PROGRESS
There is no established long-term time series of life satisfaction (or happiness) statistics in Australia, although findings from various surveys conducted since the 1950s have produced results within a fairly narrow range, that is average life satisfaction of around 6.5 to 7.5 on a scale of one to ten, indicating general satisfaction with their lives. This is despite the many changes in the social, economic and environmental conditions of Australian's lives during these decades. Surveys in other Western countries have produced similar results. For these reasons, many researchers in this area agree that measures of overall life satisfaction and happiness are most useful when analysed in conjunction with other data about people's quality of life or life circumstances.
There are still many challenges in understanding the nature and quality of these life satisfaction measures and how they relate to the social and economic conditions and outcomes which shape Australian life. For these reasons, it is not clear, as yet, that any particular measure of life satisfaction would meet the criteria for inclusion as an indicator of progress in MAP. However, the ABS acknowledges that there is growing interest in life satisfaction (or happiness) as an important aspect of life in Australia. The following sections outline some of the recent research into life satisfaction and the issues associated with its measurement so that readers can consider how Australians' feelings about their lives might relate to the picture of progress.
LIFE SATISFACTION, HAPPINESS, AND HOW THEY ARE MEASURED
Notions of happiness and life satisfaction are concerns for a wide range of disciplines, including economics, psychology, sociology, neuroscience and public policy. Psychologists often distinguish between the two concepts, with happiness relating to the more temporal concept of positive affect (i.e. positive mood, feelings of pleasure, joy, etc.) and life satisfaction constituting the more cognitive concept of an individuals' appraisal of his or her life situation overall - the totality of pleasures and pains, or quality of life. Life satisfaction and happiness both fall under the umbrella term 'subjective wellbeing' which relates to the way people feel about their lives. The term happiness is often used in a broader context (e.g. by economists in their discussion of 'utility') and in many fields, data on happiness and life satisfaction are used interchangeably, as are the terms themselves.
The most common method used to measure life satisfaction has been the use of survey questions asking people to report on their perceived levels of life satisfaction, for example, being asked questions such as 'All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?'. Respondents are given a scale of between two and ten points against which to rate their level of satisfaction. In the 2001 NHS, the ABS used a seven-point scale with responses ranging from 'delighted' to 'terrible'. Some studies into life satisfaction ask people questions about whether they believe that circumstances have or will improve. Others focus on people's level of satisfaction with particular aspects of their lives (such as work or family life) or with aspects of the society in which they live (such as the economy or the state of the environment).
INTERPRETING MEASURES OF LIFE SATISFACTION
Several characteristics of general human behaviour are believed to influence our sense of wellbeing. All of these characteristics have a regulatory effect on life-satisfaction levels (although this operates in very different ways for each) and, therefore, impact on the way data on life satisfaction can be interpreted and related to other aspects of people's lives, such as their social and economic circumstances. These are:
INDIVIDUALS AND LIFE SATISFACTION
What one person feels is important may not be so for someone else. This individual nature of life satisfaction contributes to many of the difficulties associated with its measurement, the ability to interpret measures, and the use of the findings to improve overall wellbeing at the societal level.
Analyses of the relationship between life satisfaction and various demographic, social and economic variables suggest that in many cases the relationship is not strong. Certain personality traits have been found to be strongly associated with high levels of life satisfaction or general happiness. Research (predominantly in the field of psychology) on the relationship between life satisfaction and individual characteristics has found the following are positively correlated with high levels of self-reported life satisfaction:
At the other end of the spectrum, neuroticism (or a tendency to worry) has been found to have a negative relationship with life satisfaction.
While estimated levels of life satisfaction and happiness across the population have not changed greatly in many of the wealthier developed nations since the 1950s, these countries have sustained strong economic growth over the period. For example, in the United States of America, while measures of life satisfaction have remained around 70%, real GDP per person has more than doubled over the same period.
One major area of research in this area has been the comparison of levels of wellbeing and happiness across nations. Initiatives such as the World Bank's Human Development Index are designed to provide information on how quality of life differs across nations (with a view to improving it - particularly for developing nations), using a small set of data about the conditions of life in each nation. Other initiatives, such as the World Values Survey and the World Database of Happiness, attempt to provide an alternative view of wellbeing by focusing on subjective measures.
People from different cultures bring different meaning to the notions of life satisfaction and happiness based on differing cultural values, structures, histories and circumstances. This, combined with the individual nature of life satisfaction, are factors which should be considered when interpreting international comparisons of life satisfaction. Differences in survey conditions, methodologies, and response rates will also influence the reliability and interpretation of results.
The Erasmus University of Rotterdam's World Database of Happiness contains data on life satisfaction for 90 nations. These data have been collected at different times using a variety of survey methodologies. Overall life satisfaction scores collected from these countries in the 1990s ranged from 3.2 to 8.0 on a scale of one to ten. Australia's average score of 7.3 was among the highest scores. Countries such as the United Kingdom, New Zealand and the United States of America all have very similar levels of life satisfaction to Australia. There was a tendency for poorer countries to report lower levels of life satisfaction, and for levels to be higher as income increased (as measured by GDP per person, purchasing power parity), for levels up to US$15,000. Across countries where GDP per person exceeded this, satisfaction levels tended to be broadly similar.
A 1996 analysis of these measurements from the 1990s and other data relating to 48 countries found a range of characteristics were associated with high levels of life satisfaction. Examples of these included purchasing power, respect of civil rights, social participation, industrialisation, perceived freedom in life, literacy, tolerance, and participation in work. Conversely, characteristics associated with low levels of life satisfaction included high murder rates, lethal accidents, and incidence of corruption.
UTILITY AND WELLBEING
In the past few years, economists have increasingly looked beyond conventional measures of growth to the field of psychology and subjective concepts when considering wellbeing in society. However, the focus on happiness as it relates to utility in economic theory dates back to the 18th century, evolving from debates around the role of public policy in maximising utility across society as a whole. Utility was defined as people's ability to meet their needs, and optimise their wellbeing. Conventional analysis has focused on income, which in turn reflects consumption possibilities, as its main determinant.
In 2004, the Australian Government Department of the Treasury produced a Wellbeing Framework. The framework draws on the early utility-based welfare economic theory that maximising aggregate utility corresponds to maximising societal wellbeing. The Treasury's Wellbeing Framework comprises five dimensions:
LIFE SATISFACTION AND DIMENSIONS OF PROGRESS
In describing the social, economic and environmental aspects of Australian life, it is natural that many of the indicators included in MAP focus on particular aspects of life that are 'of fundamental and direct importance to human wellbeing'. Studies over the years have found that many social and economic characteristics are partially correlated with self-reported wellbeing. Some of these relationships are evident when looking at life satisfaction data collected in the 2001 NHS, specifically the proportion of people who reported that they were satisfied with their lives, that is, they indicated they were delighted, pleased or mostly satisfied with their lives. As noted earlier, on average, 76% of Australian adults fell into this category. The proportion of people who were satisfied with their lives remained above 70% across all age groups. More people in their 20s reported they were satisfied with their lives than for any other age group, while those aged between 35 and 64 years were less likely than average to indicate satisfaction with their lives. Those aged 85 years and over were the least likely of all age groups to indicate they were satisfied (71%) (graph S9.2).
Conventional economic analysis of wellbeing (or utility) often assumes level of income as the prime determinant of wellbeing for individuals within society. In MAP, low income is identified as a key indicator for economic hardship. Taking into account the age structures of different income groups, 64% of people in the low income group felt delighted, pleased or mostly satisfied with their lives in 2001, compared with 77% of people in the middle income group, and 86% of people in the high income group (graph S9.3).
The quality of a person's close relationships is one factor that most researchers agree has a fairly strong association with high levels of subjective wellbeing. In 2001, 81% of people who were married felt pleased or mostly satisfied with their lives compared with 63% of people who were separated or divorced. Across all living arrangements, lone parents and the adult children living with them were the people least likely to feel pleased or mostly satisfied with life (60% and 64% respectively) (table S9.4).
Participation, be it social, educational or in the workforce has also been associated with higher levels of life satisfaction. In 2001, people who were employed and those with a vocational or higher education qualification had higher than average life satisfaction levels. Conversely, people who were unemployed were considerably less likely than the population as a whole to report that they were pleased or mostly satisfied with their lives (56%).
The Australian Council for Educational Research Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth, also collects information on the life satisfaction of Australia's young people. Between 1999 and 2002, the survey found that of a group of young people who had been in Year 9 in 1995, those who were involved in full-time work, study or combination of both activities equating to a full-time load, consistently reported higher levels of life satisfaction than those whose total participation equated to a part-time load, or those not participating at all.
Health is also a key dimension of progress for individuals. While a higher proportion of people without long-term health conditions indicated they were pleased or mostly satisfied with their lives (83%) in the 2001 NHS than those who had long-term conditions (75%), differences were more evident in relation to indicators of mental health. Unhappiness is a symptom of many mental health conditions and so it can be expected that the presence of mental illness would lead to a lowering of self-reported life satisfaction. In 2001, the proportion of people with mental and behavioural problems, and those with very high or high levels of psychological distress, who reported they felt pleased or mostly satisfied in life was below half - 46% and 34% respectively.
Clark, DA & Gough, I, 2005, 'Capabilities, Needs and Wellbeing: Relating the Universal and the Local' in Rethinking Wellbeing, pp. 45-62, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney
Department of the Treasury, 'Policy advice and Treasury's Wellbeing Framework' in Economic Roundup, Winter 2004, accessed in <www.treasury.gov.au/content/published_information...>, last viewed September 2006
Diener, E, Suh, EM, Lucas, RE, & Smith, HL, 1999, 'Subjective Well-being: Three Decades of Progress' in Psychological Bulletin, vol. 125, no. 2, pp. 276-302
Hillman, K & McMillan, J, 2005, ACER Research Report 43: Life Satisfaction of Young Australians: Relationships, between Further Education and Employment and General and Career Satisfaction, ACER, Victoria
Ormel, J, Lindenberg, S, Steverink, N, & Verbrugge, LM, 1999, 'Subjective Well-being and Social Production Functions' in Social Indicators Research, 46, pp. 61-90, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Netherlands
US Census Bureau, last viewed January 2006 <http://www.census.gov/popest/archives/pre-1980/PE-11-1940s.xls>
US Bureau of Economic Analysis, last viewed January 2006 <http://www.bea.gov/bea/dn/gdplev.xls>
Veenhoven, R, 1996, 'Developments in Satisfaction Research' in Social Indicators Research, 37, pp. 1-46, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Netherlands
Veenhoven, R, 2005, World Database of Happiness, Trend in Nations, Erasmus University Rotterdam, available at: <http://www.worlddatabaseofhappiness.eur.nl/>, last viewed March 2006
Wearing, AJ & Heady, B, 1998, 'Who Enjoys Life and Why: Measuring Subjective Well-being' in Eckersley, R, Measuring Progress: Is Life Getting Better?, pp. 169-182, CSIRO Publishing, Canberra
World Values Survey Association, <http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/organization/index.html>, last viewed March 2006
This page last updated 16 January 2008
Unless otherwise noted, content on this website is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia Licence together with any terms, conditions and exclusions as set out in the website Copyright notice. For permission to do anything beyond the scope of this licence and copyright terms contact us.