This might seem like an odd question, so I will begin by explaining why I think it is worth considering.
Psychological well-being was identified in a recent post on this blog as one of five basic goods that a flourishing human would be expected to have. The post listed a range of aspects involved in psychological well-being: emotional stability, positive emotion, satisfaction with material living standards, engagement in doing things for their own sake and learning new things, perception of life as meaningful, a sense of accomplishment, optimism, resilience, vitality, integrity, and self-respect.
It seems reasonable to expect that opportunities for individuals to experience some of those aspects of psychological well-being might be greater in some countries than in others.
In compiling my list of aspects of psychological well-being, my starting point was the definition of psychological flourishing adopted by Felicia Huppert and Timothy So in their article ‘Flourishing Across Europe’ (published in Soc.Indic.Res. in 2013). These authors view psychological flourishing as lying at the opposite end of a spectrum to depression and anxiety. They identified 10 symptoms of flourishing (competence, emotional stability, engagement, meaning, optimism, positive emotion, positive relationships, resilience, self-esteem, and vitality) as the opposites of internationally agreed criteria for depression and anxiety (DSM and ICD). The study has previously been discussed on this blog.
My main modification to Huppert and So’s list is the addition of satisfaction with material living standards. In my view, people who feel miserable because they are dissatisfied with their material living standards are deficient in psychological well-being, even though they may not be suffering from the symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Despite my desire to modify the measure of psychological flourishing constructed by Huppert and So, it strikes me as providing a good basis for international comparison of psychological well-being. Unfortunately, this measure is only available for European countries, and for one year, 2006. That leads me to consider whether life satisfaction is a satisfactory alternative measure.
Is life satisfaction good enough?
The chart shown above suggests that, at a national level at least, the percentage of people who are satisfied “with how life has turned out so far” (ratings of 9 or 10 on a scale of 0 to 10) is a good predictor of psychological flourishing. In a simple linear regression, the percentage with high life satisfaction explains 83% of the inter-country variation in the percentage who are flourishing. (The chart was constructed using life satisfaction data from the 2006 European Social Survey used by Huppert and So to construct their psychological flourishing indicator.)
The idea that life satisfaction could a good enough measure of psychological flourishing might appear to be at variance with the findings of Huppert and So. As discussed in an earlier post, Huppert and So found that only 46.0% of people who met the criterion for flourishing had high life satisfaction, and only 38.7% of people who had high life satisfaction met the criterion for flourishing.
However, the appropriateness of life satisfaction as an indicator of psychological flourishing depends on the purpose for which the indicator is to be used. If you want to know about an individual’s psychological well-being, it is hardly surprising that a single question about life satisfaction has been found to be a poor indicator. If your focus is on average psychological well-being at a national level, life satisfaction seems to be a good enough indicator because much of the measurement error at an individual level washes out in calculating national averages.
The countries with highest average life satisfaction
Average life satisfaction data from the Gallup World Poll is published annually in the World Happiness Report. This data set covers many countries and measures life satisfaction according to the Cantril ladder scale, with a rating of 10 being given to the best possible life and a rating of zero is given to the worst possible life.
In the 2018 survey, average life satisfaction ratings were greater than 7 in 15 countries: Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Sweden, New Zealand, Luxembourg, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Germany and Czech Republic. Average ratings tend to be fairly stable from year to year, but a decade earlier, Ireland, Spain, U.S, Israel, Belgium and France had average ratings above 7, and U.K, Costa Rica and Germany had ratings below 7.
Regression analysis undertaken by John Helliwell et. al. show that almost three-quarters of the variation in national annual average life satisfaction scores among countries can be explained by six variables: GDP per capita, networks of social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and freedom from corruption. That list of variables has a strong overlap with determinants of other basic goods in my list of the five basic goods that a flourishing human could be expected to have. (See other posts in this series, here, here and here.) Apart from GDP per capita and healthy life expectancy, however, the data used in the analysis of Helliwell et al are based on perceptions of survey participants rather than objective measurement. (The analysis is a pooled regression using 1704 national observations from the years 2005 to 2018.)
Since my focus is on identifying countries where a person chosen at random would have the best opportunities, the median life satisfaction for each country would be a better criterion than the mean. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to such data at a national level. Estimates of median life satisfaction for broad regions (based on data here) suggest that median life satisfaction is typically lower than the mean. The difference between mean and median tends to be small for countries with relatively high life satisfaction: Western Europe (6.6 for mean cf. 6.4 for median) and North America and ANZ (7.1 cf. 6.9). The difference more substantial in some other parts of the world e.g. South East Asia (5.4 cf. 4.8).
Avoiding and reducing misery
In considering which countries offer the best opportunities for psychological well-being, countries with high average life satisfaction would be less attractive to risk averse people (most humans) if a relatively high proportion of the population of those countries nevertheless lived in misery. However, available evidence suggests that factors that lead to high life satisfaction also tend to reduce misery. For example, it is apparent from the graph below that the regions of the world with highest average life satisfaction tend also to have the lowest percentages with low life satisfaction.
A study by Andrew Clark et al for the World Happiness Report 2017 used data for the U.S., Australia, Britain and Indonesia to examine how much misery would be reduced if it was possible to eliminate one or more key determinants. The factors considered were poverty, low education, unemployment, living alone, physical illness, and depression and anxiety disorders. The authors found that the most powerful impact would come from the elimination of depression and anxiety disorders.
Life satisfaction is not a particularly good indicator of individual psychological well-being, but it seems to be a good enough indicator to use in international comparisons.
Countries with the highest average life satisfaction are characterised by relatively high income levels and life expectancy, accompanied by perceptions of strong social support, freedom and low corruption. The percentage of the population who are dissatisfied with life tends to be relatively low in such countries.