8. Subjective Well-being

When people are asked to rate their lives on a scale from 0 (not at all satisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied), average evaluations across OECD countries range from below 6.5 in Turkey, Korea, Lithuania and Greece to above 8 in Canada, Ireland, Finland and Colombia (Figure 8.2). Since 2013, life satisfaction has either remained stable or increased in most of the 27 OECD countries with available data, and the OECD average rose from 7.2 to 7.4. Ten countries (Ireland, Portugal, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Korea, Hungary, Poland, Spain, Italy and Slovenia) experienced life satisfaction gains of 5% or more between 2013 and 2018. The largest falls in life satisfaction occurred in Lithuania (-5%) and Denmark (-3%).

Very low levels of life satisfaction (a score of 4 or lower out of 10) are reported by 6.7% of the population in OECD countries on average (Figure 8.3). This share ranges from more than 12.5% in Lithuania, Hungary, Greece and Portugal to fewer than 3% in Finland, Canada, Austria and Colombia. The incidence of very low life satisfaction has fallen by 1.6 percentage points, on average, since 2013, from 8.3% to 6.7% in the 25 OECD countries with available data. Generally, the OECD countries experiencing the largest falls in the share of people reporting low life satisfaction had comparatively high deprivation levels in 2013. Conversely, a small number of countries (Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark) that began with low deprivation rates in 2013, and have high average scores overall, saw a rise in deprivation rates of more than 1 percentage point. In Lithuania, deprivation rates were high in 2013 and had climbed further by 2018.

The overall dispersion (i.e. “vertical inequality”) of life satisfaction varies substantially across OECD countries. In Lithuania, Portugal, Greece, Hungary and the Slovak Republic, average scores for people in the top 20% of the distribution are at least 2.5 times higher than the average scores for those in the bottom 20% (Figure 8.4). By contrast, the most equal distributions are observed in Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, Belgium, Colombia, Switzerland and Austria, where average scores for the top 20% are around 1.5-1.8 times higher than the average scores for the bottom 20%.

Consistent with the picture for deprivation (Figure 8.3), the data overall indicate that OECD countries faring better on average levels of life satisfaction tend to have narrower gaps between population groups, while countries with lower average levels tend to experience larger inequalities. In addition, the gap between the top 20% and bottom 20% has narrowed since 2013 for several OECD countries. The most sizeable reductions in inequality have occurred in Greece, Portugal, Korea and Hungary. Nevertheless, the gap between the top and bottom has widened in Lithuania, Denmark and Sweden since 2013 – and in all cases this was due to a fall in the average score for the bottom 20%, rather than an increase among the top 20%.

Just over 13% of people in the OECD on average report more negative feelings (anger, sadness, worry) than positive feelings (enjoyment, laughing or smiling a lot, well-rested) – a measure described here as a negative affect balance. This rate ranges from more than 20% in Turkey, Italy, Greece and Spain to 8% or less in Ireland, Mexico and Finland, and just 5% in Iceland (Figure 8.5).

Negative affect balance has worsened for some countries, but improved for others, since 2010. The incidence of negative affect balance increased (implying a worsening of the situation) the most in Italy (up 6 percentage points), Belgium (nearly 5 percentage points), Turkey, Korea and Costa Rica (all more than 3.5 percentage points). By contrast, the rate of negative affect balance fell (implying an improvement in the situation) by at least 4 percentage points in the Slovak Republic, Lithuania, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Estonia.

For the 32 OECD countries with available data, gender differences in life satisfaction are negligible. In 2018, the OECD average life satisfaction rating was 7.4 for both men and women, measured on a 0 to 10 scale. The gender gap exceeded 0.2 scale points only in Estonia and Korea (where women rate their life satisfaction more positively than men) as well as Lithuania and Portugal (where men rate their life satisfaction more positively than women).

When it comes to negative affect balance, there is a clearer gender gap in favour of men (Figure 8.6). For OECD countries on average, 15% of women report experiencing more negative than positive feelings, while only 12% of men do, implying a gender ratio of around 0.80. Rates of negative affect balance are at least 3 percentage points higher for women than for men in close to half of OECD countries. Japan is the only country where men experience higher rates of negative affect balance (7.9%) than women do (6.9%), but in this case both genders fall well below the OECD average rate (13%).

Younger people generally report higher life satisfaction (Figure 8.7), and lower negative affect balance (Figure 8.8) than those at older ages. Among OECD countries, average life satisfaction is 7.8 for people aged 15-29, 7.5 for those aged 30-49, and 7.3 for those aged 50 and over. The prevalence of negative affect balance for the three age groups is, respectively, 9.2%, 14.3% and 15.4%. Nevertheless, exceptions to these average patterns are widespread. In northern Europe, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, both life satisfaction and rates of negative affect balance are reasonably good across all age groups, and few age-related differences exist – and where they do, they often favour the over-50s. Older people fare comparatively poorly in southern and eastern Europe (e.g. Lithuania, Hungary, Greece, Portugal and Latvia) as well as in Latin American OECD countries. In the majority of wealthier OECD countries, middle-aged people have the highest prevalence of negative affect balance.

Higher educational attainment is generally associated with higher life satisfaction (Figure 8.9) and lower prevalence of negative affect balance (Figure 8.10). OECD average life satisfaction is 7.1 for people without an upper secondary education, 7.5 for those who have completed upper secondary education, and 7.8 for the tertiary-educated. The prevalence of negative affect balance across the same educational categories are, respectively, 17.6%, 13.3% and 10.3%. However, education-related inequalities are larger in countries that generally have lower overall scores on these measures; among the countries that perform well on Subjective Well-being in general, differences by education tend to be much smaller.


[3] OECD (2015), How’s Life? 2015: Measuring Well-being, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/how_life-2015-en.

[1] OECD (2013), OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264191655-en.

[2] Stiglitz, J., J. Fitoussi and M. Durand (eds.) (2018), For Good Measure: Advancing Research on Well-being Metrics Beyond GDP, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264307278-en.

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