Sunday, October 19, 2014

Do international comparisons show that people in countries with low average life satisfaction tend to have a high incidence of negative emotion?

It seems intuitively reasonable that people in countries with low average life satisfaction levels would tend to have a higher incidence of negative emotion. The theory of subjective well-being homeostasis, discussed in my last post, provides a theoretical basis to predict that will happen. Adaptation and resilience normally keep life satisfaction within a set-point range, but if resilience is weak, life satisfaction can fail to recover from negative experiences. On that basis we would expect low average life satisfaction to be associated with a relatively high incidence of homeostatic breakdown.

At first sight, Figure 1 appears to provide very limited support for the homeostasis theory. There are no countries in which high average life satisfaction is accompanied by a high incidence of negative emotion. At the other end of the scale, however, there are many countries in which low average life satisfaction is accompanied by a relatively low incidence of negative emotion.

The data is sourced from the Gallup World Poll (via World Happiness Report 2013). The negative emotion data for each country is the average of yes/no answers (yes = 1) to the question of whether respondents experienced worry, anger, sadness, anger and depression yesterday. The life satisfaction data is based on the Cantril ladder which involves survey respondents being asked to rate their lives against an 11 point scale in which the top rung of the ladder (rating of 10) corresponds to the best possible life and the bottom rung of the ladder (rating of 0) corresponds to the worst possible life.

Figure 2 shows the expected relationship after controlling for a range of socio-economic and cultural factors. This involved adjusting the data on incidence of negative emotion using the results of a regression analysis. The adjusted data are estimates of what the incidence of negative emotion might have been in the absence of variation in the socio-economic and cultural factors (i.e. with the socio-economic variables equal to the average over all countries and European/American culture).

The regression analysis suggests that at a national level an increase of 1 unit in average life satisfaction reduces the incidence of negative emotion by about 0.02 (SE = 0.007) i.e. by about 10% at the world average level of negative affect. The regression explained about 45% of international variation in the incidence of negative emotion.

The socio-economic variables included in the regression were per capita GDP, social support (relatives and friends to count on), freedom (proportion satisfied with freedom to choose what they do) and corruption (proportion saying corruption is widespread in business or government). The estimated coefficients for those variables were all significantly different from zero, with a negative estimated coefficient on income. It isn’t surprising that high average incomes could be associated with a high incidence of negative emotion if not accompanied by high average life satisfaction and social support.

The cultural influence has been accounted for by using regional dummy variables. The estimates suggest that cultural factors reduce the reported incidence of negative emotion by the following amounts:
East Asia:                                 0.134 (SE 0.025)
Africa:                                      0.104 (SE 0.017)
South Asia:                              0.103 (SE 0.027)
Former Soviet Union:              0.092 (SE 0.020)
Central and Eastern Europe:    0.055 (SE 0.018)
South East Asia:                       0.050 (SE 0.022)

The low incidence of reported negative emotion in East Asia is consistent with previous research on cross-cultural difference in subjective wellbeing. (See, for example a recent article by Lufanna LaiRobert Cummins and Anna Lauabstract here.)

One of the most interesting findings of the regression analysis reported above is that the coefficient for Latin America was not significantly different from zero. This is in contrast to the findings of studies relating to positive emotion (including those reported on this blog here and here) which suggests that Latin American culture has a strong positive impact. It seems that the positivity of Latin Americans does not translate to a lower incidence of negative emotion in that part of the world. 

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