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The life satisfaction indicator measures how people evaluate their life as a whole. It is a subjective proxy measure of quality of life that complements more objective indicators. While income per capita and crime rates, for example, are based on measurable data, this indicator relies on individuals to subjectively rate their own well-being. The OECD notes: “Measures of life satisfaction are a useful complement to more traditional indicators based on objective conditions because they present an overall picture of well-being that is grounded in people’s preferences rather than in a-priori judgments about what are the important drivers of individuals’ well-being.”1
There are few well-established programs of official reporting on subjective well-being in OECD countries. The Conference Board used the World Values Survey data on life satisfaction in previous How Canada Performs report cards. Unfortunately, the most recent data for Canada from the survey is from 2006. Consequently, the data for this year’s How Canada Performs life satisfaction indicator are drawn from the Gallup World Poll of 2010. The Gallup World Poll uses the same methodology and questionnaire in all countries. The OECD also used this data source for its report How’s Life? Measuring Well-Being.
The World Values Survey is currently carrying out a new wave of surveys, the results of which will be used in How Canada Performs report cards.
The life satisfaction indicator used in the Gallup World Poll is based on the “Cantril Ladder,” which asks people to rate their current life on a scale from 0 (worst possible life) to 10 (best possible life). The country score is the mean value of the individual responses in that country.
Canada earns an “A” and ties with Norway for 2nd place out of 17 peer countries, with a life satisfaction score of 7.7. The Danes are the most satisfied with their lives overall, while the Italians and Japanese claim the least satisfaction.
Life satisfaction scores vary by gender, age, marital status, education, income, and work status, according to analysis of the data from the Gallup World Poll by the OECD.2
On average in the OECD, life satisfaction is higher among men, among youth and older people, among those with more education, among the employed, and among those with higher incomes.
These patterns generally hold true for Canada, except that more Canadian women recorded higher life satisfaction than Canadian men. Canadians aged 51 to 64 years also claimed higher-than-average life satisfaction.
There are two key challenges associated with subjective measures of well being, according to the OECD.3
First, what drives people’s life satisfaction may be affected by personal circumstances to which individuals adapt, even if that is not objectively good. Similarly, there may be a disconnect between subjective measures of well-being and the more objective measures. For example, the indicator self-reported health status in the Health category of this website reveals that the Japanese have the lowest self-reported health status and yet have the longest life expectancy, the lowest infant mortality rate, and the lowest rates of mortality due to circulatory diseases, diabetes, and mental disorders.
Second, it is difficult to ensure that individuals in different countries understand the question in the same way and are not affected by external factors that vary by country.
Despite these challenges, the OECD reports that “a large body of recent research has shown that these shortcomings have a limited effect on subjective measures of well-being and that it is indeed possible to make valid comparisons between different groups of people. After having long been relegated to academic research, these measures are today increasingly accepted more widely.”4
1 OECD, How’s Life? Measuring Well-Being, 2011, 266 (accessed October 30, 2012).
2 OECD, How’s Life? Measuring Well-Being, 2011, 274–78 (accessed October 30, 2012).
3 OECD, How’s Life? Measuring Well-Being, 2011, 266 (accessed October 30, 2012).
4 OECD, How’s Life? Measuring Well-Being, 2011, 266 (accessed October 30, 2012).
Subjective measure of life satisfaction that assesses the extent to which individuals give a favourable evaluation to the overall quality of their life.
The data on this page are current as of January 2013.