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Do blondes have more fun? An OECD expert replies

October 1, 2010

Calibrating the OECD "Society at a Glance" Funometer (TM)

Today’s post is contributed by Maxime Ladaique from the OECD directorate of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs.

I know how hard it is to wait for World Statistics Day on 20 October (20102010, get it?), so today I’m going to tell you about some particularly interesting statistics: in which OECD country people are most satisfied with their life, and why these people are happier.

And if you don’t mind, I’m going to make you work a little bit. I would like you to think of a number from 0 to 10, but not a random number: a number measuring your current level of life satisfaction.

Zero means you’ve got a bad case of the blues. In fact, if you chose 0, I don’t think you should be reading this blog. Maybe you should be with your family, or consulting a doctor.

10 means you couldn’t feel better. I’m not sure there will be any “10s”, unless you are reading us from a beach or a yacht in the Caribbean.

Anyway, this is how US poll company Gallup collects data on levels of life satisfaction in 150 countries around the world – and we use these data at the OECD.

OK – You all have your number ready?

Do you think you feel happier or less happy than other people?

Well, on average across OECD countries, people report a level of life satisfaction of 6.7. People from the UK, Canada, New Zealand or from France report – on average – slightly higher levels than the OECD average, between 7 and 7.5.

Countries with the lowest levels of life satisfaction are some eastern European and Mediterranean countries – Hungary, Slovak Republic and Turkey – at around 5.

And countries with the highest levels are the Nordics. Yes, you know: those blonds!  First Denmark, then Finland – at almost 8!

So what’s their secret? How do the Nordics manage to be satisfied? Is it the cold weather? Is it the pickled herrings? Or do blondes really have more fun?

Not really. I’ll tell you two main reasons.

First, these countries perform quite well economically. They are among the richer OECD countries, and people in richer countries report higher levels of life satisfaction.

But, you ask, what about the United States, one of richest countries: why are Americans not reporting higher levels of life satisfaction on average?

This is because although it’s rich, there is a lot of inequality in the levels of life satisfaction. There are many people reporting high levels of life satisfaction and many reporting low levels.  People tend to feel better, on average, in countries where there is less inequality, such as the Nordics, where governments help the population by redistributing money from the rich to the poor – which could explain why they feel better on average.

Finally, you may also be interested to read that – overall – there is no difference between women and men in reported levels of happiness, but we are happier:

  • as we get older- up to the mid 70s, this is when health problems start getting more serious
  • when we have a job – yes, work is good for you!
  • when we are married
  • when we socialize with other people.

And of we are also happier when we read interesting texts and get more knowledge, as you are hopefully doing right now.

If you felt happy reading this, there’s plenty more where that comes from in Society at a Glance: OECD Social Indicators.

And thank you OECD Insights blog for keeping our level of happiness up!

Useful links:

World Statistics Day at OECD

OECD Social Policy division

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Therese permalink
    October 1, 2010 22:55

    Interesting! Is there a way to measure, or even guess at, the role of self-reporting, i.e, whether in some cultures people are more/less likely to say they are happy?

  2. October 4, 2010 15:16

    Interesting question, thank you. Yes, there is a cultural element explaining differences in life satisfaction reporting across OECD countries. But despite a growing literature on this subject over recent years, it is difficult to measure.

    In our next Society at a Glance coming out in May 2011, we will present self-assessed measures of positive and negative experiences* in an effort to reduce this cultural effect. The Positive Experience Index is a measure of respondents’ experienced well-being on the day before the survey in terms of feeling well-rested, being treated with respect all day, smiling or laughing a lot, learning or doing something interesting, and experiencing enjoyment.
    The Negative Experience Index is a measure of respondents’ experienced well-being on the day before the survey in terms of physical pain, worry, sadness, stress and depression.
    The literature suggests that these positive and negative experiences are likely to be less influenced by country-specific cultural factors than life satisfaction or happiness-style questions. Life satisfaction may mean many different things to different country-cultures, but a smile is a strong cross-cultural expression of happiness. However, people from certain cultures may be more or less likely to report smiling, even if in actuality they smile the same amount. We just do not know for sure.

    Otherwise, “well-being” can also be measured by objective measures, such as suicide rates (Indicator CO4 in Society at a Glance 2009). We tend to find a negative correlation between suicide rates and subjective life evaluations, suggesting that they are linked to objective outcomes and are not simply the product of country-cultures.

    *These measures of positive and negative experiences are presented in OECD (2010) Factbook

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