How satisfied are you with your life?
How are you today?
No, really. I want to know. How happy are you today on a scale of zero to ten?
Now let's get serious. On a scale of 0 to 10, how satisfied are you with your life?
That's right. On a scale of 0-10, how would you rate your entire life so far? Just for fun, write it down. Soon, we'll compare your number with an average from 38 countries.
First, let's talk about life satisfaction (LS): What is it? Why is it important? What factors are involved? Which findings might surprise you?
I've written about the subject quite a bit on this blog already. In fact, it's the main reason I've chosen to focus on having a "bright outlook." According to Word Hippo, bright can mean "Likely to be successful or prosperous." The purpose of this blog is to help people prosper and find satisfaction in life. Honestly, what's more important to you than feeling satisfied with your life?
Here are some ways of defining "life satisfaction":
- The degree to which one finds life rich, meaningful, full, and of high quality.
- One's subjective assessment of the quality of one's life, implying contentment with or acceptance of one's circumstances or the fulfillment of one's wants and needs.Sousa, L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2001). Life satisfaction. In J. Worell(Ed.), Encyclopedia of women and gender: Sex similarities and differences and the impact of society on gender (Vol. 2, pp. 667-676). San Diego, CA: Academic Press
- An overall evaluation of one's feelings and attitudes about life at a particular time ranging from negative to positive.Buetell, N. (2006). Life satisfaction, a Sloan Work and Family Encyclopedia entry.
- An individual's evaluation of their own life according to the factors that are most important to them.Eric Kim, Assistant Professor, UBC Psychology. Head author of Kim, E. S., Delaney, S. W., Tay, L., Chen, Y., Diener, E., & Vanderweele, T. J. (2021). Life Satisfaction and Subsequent Physical, Behavioral, and Psychosocial Health in Older Adults. In The Milbank Quarterly (Vol. 99, Issue 1, pp. 209–239). Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-0009.12497
Ed Diener's definition of life satisfaction might be the most useful. He was arguably the leading authority on the topic for many years. Among the most commonly used instruments for measuring this evaluation is the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS) he and his colleagues developed in 1985.
In the SWLS, respondents rate their life based on five aspects:
- What is your level of satisfaction with your life?
- How close is your life to your ideal?
- Are you satisfied with your current life circumstances?
- Have you achieved what matters most to you?
- Are there any changes you would make?The actual five-question survey uses fewer words than I used to describe it. I'll leave it as an exercise for you to locate the actual SWLS. (It took me less than a minute).
Other scales, such as the "Cantrill ladder" used by Gallup in its World Poll, ask respondents to choose only one number. Speaking of which, let's see the results of the 38-country survey I promised above. The OECD asked people in its member nations to rate their general satisfaction with life on a scale from 0 to 10. The global average was 6.5. How does your life satisfaction compare?
Life satisfaction is inherently important. It is important for other reasons as well.
A 2021 study used data from a nationally representative cohort of nearly 13,000 US adults over age 50.Kim et al. (2021) study referenced above The question they considered was, does a person's current life satisfaction predict their future well-being? In many areas, the result was an emphatic yes. Over a four-year period, high life satisfaction correlated with reduced risk in the following areas:
- Depression (46%)
- Mortality (26%)
- Limitations of physical functioning (25%)
- The onset of sleep problems (14%)
- Chronic pain (12%)
The results of this study are in agreement with earlier ones. Besides reduced risks, respondents who were satisfied with their lives were 8% more likely to engage in frequent physical activity and also scored well on several indicators of psychological well-being.
Another study, the first of its kind, investigated how variability in life satisfaction is related to longevity.Boehm, J. K., Winning, A., Segerstrom, S., & Kubzansky, L. D. (2015). Variability Modifies Life Satisfaction’s Association With Mortality Risk in Older Adults. In Psychological Science (Vol. 26, Issue 7, pp. 1063–1070). SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797615581491 Over a period of nine years, the study followed 4,458 Australians 50 or older. Researchers found that participants whose life satisfaction increased during the study had an 18% lower chance of dying. Those with high life satisfaction all had a reduced risk of mortality. Conversely, those with both low life satisfaction and highly variable ratings had an increased mortality risk of up to 20%.I am over 50, so these studies particularly resonate with me. However, if you are young, please don't disregard this. Young people generally fail to understand that time passes faster than they expect. Apparently, this is only learned through hindsight. However, there are a few bright young people who have articulated this concept better than I can. If you can grasp this concept you will have a bright outlook indeed.
A study of octogenarians found that those in the lowest quartile of satisfaction with present life had an almost twofold higher mortality risk than those in the highest quartile, even after adjusting for multiple confounding factors.Lyyra, T.-M., Tormakangas, T. M., Read, S., Rantanen, T., & Berg, S. (2006). Satisfaction With Present Life Predicts Survival in Octogenarians. In The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences (Vol. 61, Issue 6, pp. P319–P326). Oxford University Press (OUP). https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/61.6.p319 Compare the results of the Gerstorf et al. study below for a better understanding of this phenomenon.
There is strong evidence that life satisfaction and work engagement are reciprocal. In other words, they are closely linked and may feed off each other.Ferreira, P., Gabriel, C., Faria, S., Rodrigues, P., & Sousa Pereira, M. (2020). What if Employees Brought Their Life to Work? The Relation of Life Satisfaction and Work Engagement. In Sustainability (Vol. 12, Issue 7, p. 2743). MDPI AG. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12072743 Also see Judge, T. A., & Watanabe, S. (1993). Another look at the job satisfaction-life satisfaction relationship. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 938-949.
An often-cited paper suggests that 50% of our happiness is genetic and 10% based on our circumstances.Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change. In Review of General Psychology (Vol. 9, Issue 2, pp. 111–131). SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-26184.108.40.206 That leaves us with 40% under our control. In this article, we will learn how to make the most of it.
Let's start with Ed Diener's landmark 1984 paper.Diener, E. (1984). Subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 95(3), 542–575. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.95.3.542 According to Diener,
The highest correlation was with satisfaction with self (.55), suggesting that people must have self-esteem to be satisfied with their lives.
No wonder I spend so much time writing about self-esteem on this blog. Other factors that Diener and others found important (not surprisingly) included satisfaction with one's living standard, one's family life, and particularly one's love life.
The high predictive value of these factors has been found by other researchers as well. We will quantify the factors using data from a UK Office for National Statistics report.Vassilev, G. & Manclossi, S. (2019). Personal and economic well-being: what matters most to our life satisfaction? Office for National Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/personalandeconomicwellbeingintheuk/whatmattersmosttoourlifesatisfaction on 25 November 2021.
Study participants numbered 286,059, so researchers had a big sample size to work with. Which factors did they identify as having the greatest impact on life satisfaction?
Does it surprise you to know that your age is one of the biggest factors? This is part of the ten percent that we can't control mentioned above. However, knowing what to expect gives us control over something very important: our attitude and expectations.
It turns out studies have shown a strong tendency for life satisfaction to fall in middle age and rise again in later years.
Among the personal characteristics examined in the UK report, age has the strongest association with life satisfaction. When people reach their 40s, life satisfaction falls to its lowest point, then rises again as we approach retirement age, and drops again as we enter our 80s.
According to the 2012 World Happiness Report, this pattern "has been observed in many countries in many continents."
Near the end of life, life satisfaction begins to fall again, not based on age but based on the nearness of death. A 12-year study involving more than 400 people found most showed a doubling of the decline in LS around 4 years before death.Gerstorf, D., Ram, N., Röcke, C., Lindenberger, U., & Smith, J. (2008). Decline in life satisfaction in old age: Longitudinal evidence for links to distance-to-death. In Psychology and Aging (Vol. 23, Issue 1, pp. 154–168). American Psychological Association (APA). https://doi.org/10.1037/0882-79220.127.116.11
In spite of the growing popular perception of marriage as outdated and old-fashioned, it still plays an important role in life satisfaction.
Vassiliev and ManclossiSee UK Office for National Statistics report cited above found that marital status was the second strongest predictor of life satisfaction. Those who were not married or in a civil partnership reported 5-10 percent lower life satisfaction than those who were.
The connection is so strong that a study of historical data from Finland used the number of marriages as a proxy for life satisfaction.This is because historical data for life satisfaction wasn't available going back that far. If marriage and life satisfaction weren't so closely related, the conclusions of the study would be meaningless. Reiter, C., & Lutz, W. (2020). Survival and Years of Good Life in Finland in the very long run. In Finnish Yearbook of Population Research (Vol. 54, pp. 1–27). Finnish Yearbook of Population Research. https://doi.org/10.23979/fypr.87148
It turns out, this isn't just part of a well-rounded personality. Concern for the welfare of others and caring for the needs of others are characteristics of an altruistic attitude that promotes life satisfaction. There is a strong correlation between life satisfaction and altruism, empathy, and social responsibility, according to a study of 428 adolescents.Lu, C., Jiang, Y., Zhao, X., & Fang, P. (2019). Will helping others also benefit you? Chinese adolescents’ altruistic personality traits and life satisfaction. Journal of Happiness Studies, 21(4), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-019-00134-6
Psychology Today pointed me to a study finding that people who are prone to curiosity experience "greater life satisfaction from one day to the next."Kashdan, T. B., & Steger, M. F. (2007). Curiosity and pathways to well-being and meaning in life: Traits, states, and everyday behaviors. In Motivation and Emotion (Vol. 31, Issue 3, pp. 159–173). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-007-9068-7 The article, co-written by Todd Kashdan (who is also one of the study authors), concludes:
One of life's sharpest paradoxes is that the key to satisfaction is doing things that feel risky [and] uncomfortable.
Trying new things and breaking out of your routine is a great way to improve your satisfaction with life.
Social relationships and setting goals are each related to LS. The kind of goal matters. German researchers examined whether self-focused goals or social goals led to greater life satisfaction.Rohrer, J. M., Richter, D., Brümmer, M., Wagner, G. G., & Schmukle, S. C. (2018). Successfully Striving for Happiness: Socially Engaged Pursuits Predict Increases in Life Satisfaction. In Psychological Science (Vol. 29, Issue 8, pp. 1291–1298). SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797618761660
The study found that those with social-focused goals were more satisfied with their lives. In contrast, those with self-focused goals (staying healthy, finding a better job, or quitting smoking) did slightly worse than those with no goals.
A study surveyed 199 MBA students and followed up with 87 of them after seven years.Masuda, A. D., & Sortheix, F. M. (2011). Work-Family Values, Priority Goals and Life Satisfaction: A Seven Year Follow-up of MBA Students. In Journal of Happiness Studies (Vol. 13, Issue 6, pp. 1131–1144). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-011-9310-6 Students who initially prioritized family goals over work goals reported higher levels of life satisfaction both at the beginning and seven years later. The authors concluded that increased levels of family satisfaction accounted for this happiness. In addition, they found:
- After adjusting for levels of LS at the beginning of the study, there was still a significant relationship between family values and life satisfaction.
- Family values play a more significant role in life satisfaction than personal goals do.
Life satisfaction and a sense of community are strongly linked, according to another study.Prezza, M., Amici, M., Roberti, T., & Tedeschi, G. (2001). Sense of community referred to the whole town: Its relations with neighboring, loneliness, life satisfaction, and area of residence. In Journal of Community Psychology (Vol. 29, Issue 1, pp. 29–52). Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/1520-6629(200101)29:1<29::aid-jcop3>3.0.co;2-c
We all know it can be fun to spend money, but does a shopping spree always increase life satisfaction?
Household spending has a stronger correlation with life satisfaction than household income, though they both matter less than other personal and household circumstances. Also, among all spending categories, hotel and restaurant spending show the strongest positive association with life satisfaction.Vassilev, G. & Manclossi, S. (2019)
Spending money on others increases LS too.
- It has been found that compassion towards oneself and others has a stronger effect on LS than some other factors. This seems to be true across cultures.
- Trust: The World Happiness Report quoted above states, "Social trust spurs a sense of life satisfaction."
- A hopeful mindset promotes life satisfaction by enabling individuals to identify desired goals in life and leads to increased confidence and motivation.
- Expressing emotions in positive, productive ways rather than suppressing them is linked with greater LS.
While I'm sure you don't intend to do this, many activities promoted in our society today have this effect.
Try to get rich
Above we discussed how, under certain circumstances, spending money can increase life satisfaction. Thus, we should strive for as much money as possible, right?
As with most things in life, moderation is the key. A Korean study confirmed the findings of previous studies which "have provided quite consistent results showing that prioritizing extrinsic achievements, such as money, is adversely associated with subjective well-being in general." Lee, M.-A., & Kawachi, I. (2019). The keys to happiness: Associations between personal values regarding core life domains and happiness in South Korea. In S. E. Ha (Ed.), PLOS ONE (Vol. 14, Issue 1, p. e0209821). Public Library of Science (PLoS). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209821
eople whose main goals require earning money are also less satisfied with their lives on average."
According to the Masuda study cited above, those with goals of prioritizing work over family had lower life satisfaction at both the beginning and end of the study. In other words, making getting rich a priority means lower LS long-term.
This may sound ridiculous, considering the fact that better-educated people are better off in nearly every way.
A 1996 study of 5,000 British workers found that "the higher the level of education, the lower the reported satisfaction level."Clark, A. E., & Oswald, A. J. (1996). Satisfaction and comparison income. In Journal of Public Economics (Vol. 61, Issue 3, pp. 359–381). Elsevier BV. https://doi.org/10.1016/0047-2727(95)01564-7 The authors attribute this phenomenon to the fact that "education raises aspiration targets."
Counter to what neoclassical economic theory might lead one to expect, highly educated people appear less content.
Surprised, they surveyed the literature and found statistical support for the finding, despite being contrary to "orthodox thinking".
Education is always a good thing, but I think we need to be careful about where we pursue education.
Education and income/wealth are both examples where getting more doesn't necessarily make you happier. In metaphorical terms, sometimes becoming a bigger fish simply means entering a bigger pond with even bigger fish.
This section is reserved for factors that may have an effect on LS. However, the effect is best described as "it depends."
A 2019 article on replicationindex.com declared the small influence of health on global well-being judgments to be a "surprising finding."
Ed Diener wouldn't be surprised. His above-cited paper, published way back in 1984, discusses the fact that although people directly rate health as the second most important domain, satisfaction with health is only the eighth strongest predictor of life satisfaction.
On the other hand, the Vassilev and Manclossi study found a strong connection. Those reporting very good health were three times more likely to report higher life satisfaction than those reporting fair health. In contrast, someone reporting very bad health had a 5.7 times lower chance of reporting higher life satisfaction than someone reporting fair health.
Given just how important health is to wellbeing in general, it is worth revisiting this topic in the future. In the meantime, how can one reconcile this apparent contradiction?
I tend to think of it in the same way as the popular idea that people fear public speaking more than they fear death. I think a lot of it is determined by how often a person thinks about their health. Health to a healthy person is a lot like water to a fish.
Many studies, such as the Korean study above, find strong links between religious activity and LS. However, some have found no connection, as in the case of respondents residing in East GermanySinnewe, E., Kortt, M. A., & Dollery, B. (2014). Religion and Life Satisfaction: Evidence from Germany. In Social Indicators Research (Vol. 123, Issue 3, pp. 837–855). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-014-0763-y and even a negative relationship in the case of elderly people in China.Brown, P.H., & Tierney, B. (2006). Religion and Subjective Well-Being Among China's Elderly Population.
Some studies have found "denominational variations" in LS.Ellison, C. G. (1991). Religious Involvement and Subjective Well-Being. In Journal of Health and Social Behavior (Vol. 32, Issue 1, p. 80). SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.2307/2136801
I've already written about the weak connection between income and happiness. It bears further elaboration though.
80,000 hours also noted that above $75,000, income "had no relationship with how happy, sad or stressed people felt."
This is hardly surprising – we all know people who’ve gone into high earning jobs and ended up miserable.
The Clark and Oswald study cited above found that workers' perceived levels of well-being are at best weakly correlated with their income alone. Vassilev and Manclossi observed similar results.
Wiblin wrote, "The best available study found that each doubling of your income correlated with a life satisfaction 0.5 points higher on a scale of 1 to 10."
In light of the fact that material wealth is weakly correlated with life satisfaction, let's quantify what we have learned.
I wouldn't take the following claims to the bank, but they make sense based on what we've considered:
- For the average single person, it would take a 767% increase in absolute income to match the happiness boost produced by marriage.Ball, R., & Chernova, K. (2007). Absolute Income, Relative Income, and Happiness. In Social Indicators Research (Vol. 88, Issue 3, pp. 497–529). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-007-9217-0
- On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is bad health and 5 is perfect health, a move from a rating of 3 to 4 could only be matched by a 6,531% increase in absolute income.
- Having a better social life can be worth as much as an additional $130,000 a year.
- A happy marriage is worth $105,000 a year.
- You’d need as much as an extra $115,000 a year to make up for the life satisfaction you lose due to unemployment.
- Your health is worth $463,000.
- Seeing friends and family regularly is worth nearly $100,000.This comes from the same article as the $130K statistic. It makes me wonder what a "better social life" involves that makes it 30% better than just spending time regularly with friends and family. I'm tempted to dive down that rabbit hole, but I need to remind myself that these numbers are illustrative and should not be taken as gospel.
Pursuing material wealth is not the key to a satisfying life. Strong relationships are super important, especially if you are fortunate enough to be happily married. If you are middle-aged, like I am, realize that your LS will naturally increase with time. If you are still young, prepare yourself mentally for a dip in the road.
Do things for others, get out of your comfort zone, and try new things. Spend your money wisely. Don't worry too much about getting more. Instead, find a job you like and learn to enjoy your work. Prioritize relationships over work, and you'll have fewer regrets.
Also remember, some of the most important things in life don't come with easy answers. Pursuing education, health, and religion won't always lead to greater satisfaction, but this doesn't mean they aren't important. Keep learning, keep prioritizing, and keep improving. That's the best way to maintain a bright outlook.