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CHAPTER 6 Subjective Satisfaction: Cross-Cultural and Cross-Temporal Variations IN the preceding chapter we hypothesized that satisfaction with one's life as a whole tends to remain constant across the social categories of a given culture; and the evidence supports this assumption . But the qualifying phrase, "of a given culture," is extremely important, for while Overall Life Satisfaction shows only modest variation from group to group within any given nation, it shows a great deal of variation from one country to another. I. CROSS-NATIONAL DIFFERENCES IN OBJECTIVE WELFARE There are many ways in which one could conceivably explain this cross-national variation. One of the most obvious possibilities (and one which seems intuitively plausible) is that given nations show different levels of subjective satisfaction simply because they are better-off than others: their populations enjoy higher incomes, better housing, better medical care, more agreeable climates, and so forth. In short, better objective conditions lead directly to greater subjective satisfaction. But this temptingly simple explanation of the cross-national differences is virtually identical to the explanatory model that has just proven spectacularly inadequate in explaining individual-level differences in life satisfaction. Objective conditions do have an impact on individual life satisfaction; but the relationship is shaped in crucial ways by internal aspirations and values that can themselves change (though with important time lags). A moment's reflection makes it apparent that the objectively determined model is not likely to provide an adequate explanation of the cross-national differences either. True, the Italian public ranks lowest on Overall Life Satisfaction and Italy is one of the poorest and most troubled countries in our sample; thus far, the model seems promising. But beyond this point we run into gross inconsistencies. Ireland is poorer than Italy; and 150 —Value Change at the time of our survey the Irish not only were subsisting on the lowest per capita income to be found among these countries but also were suffering one of the highest inflation rates (as high as the Italian) and one of the highest unemployment rates (far higher than the Italian). As if this were not enough, a virtual civil war was taking place in Northern Ireland;1 yet the Irish public (and also the public of Northern Ireland!) shows a relatively high level of overall satisfaction, ranking well above the Italians, French, Germans, and British. Conversely, the Danes (with the second highest per capita income, though with high unemployment ) were the most satisfied public; but the Germans (with the highest per capita income of the nine and a remarkably good overall economic performance) ranked seventh among the nine countries in overall satisfaction. Easterlin reports a similar finding based on analysis of Cantril's cross-national data. He finds little positive association between income and happiness levels among countries.2 We suspect that threshold effects may be involved. In extremely impoverished societies like India, with per capita revenues around $100 per year and millions of people literally starving, Overall Life Satisfaction may be very low. But as one rises above the subsistence level, economic factors probably become less relevant to overall satisfaction and happiness. All of the European Community countries have per capita revenues at least fifteen times as high as India's. Some of these countries are less prosperous than others, but are far above the subsistence level. Within the industrialized West, then, it is virtually impossible to interpret the observed cross-national life satisfaction levels as a direct reflection of objective welfare. Do the cross-national differences reflect the influence 1 In 1975, for the first time, the European Community surveys gathered data from Northern Ireland as well as the rest of the United Kingdom. Furthermore, Northern Ireland was oversampled, in order to provide enough cases to permit a reasonably accurate estimate of opinion in that region (N = 300). Satisfaction levels in Northern Ireland were closer to those in the Republic of Ireland than to those in Great Britain, although all of these interviews were carried out in English. As noted above, the Irish public ranked surprisingly high on Overall Life Satisfaction; but the public of Northern Ireland ranked slightly higher on this characteristic than their neighbors to the South. Northern Ireland is not included in Table 6-3, below , since it was not surveyed in 1973; if it were, it would rank tenth out of 56 regions, with a mean score of "16.04." 2 See Richard A. Easterlin, "Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781400869589
MARC Record
OCLC
933516258
Pages
496
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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