Quality of life indicators - overall experience of life
Data extracted in March 2020
Planned update: December 2022.
Overall life satisfaction in the EU, 2018 (mean scale 1-10)
This article is part of the Eurostat online publication Quality of life indicators, providing recent statistics on the quality of life in the European Union (EU). The publication presents a detailed analysis of many different dimensions of quality of life, complementing the indicator traditionally used as the measure of economic and social development, gross domestic product (GDP).
The present article focuses on the last dimension of the '8+1' quality of life indicators framework, overall experience of life. Whereas the first eight quality of life indicators focused on various individual dimensions such as material living conditions, living environment or employment, which are often analysed from both an objective and a subjective perspective, no assessment of quality of life can be complete without taking into account the overall subjective well-being of persons, perhaps the only way to integrate the diversity of the experiences, choices, priorities and values of an individual. Furthermore it is also the ultimate goal of any EU policy, as stated in the Treaty on European Union.
Overall life satisfaction in the context of quality of life
While most dimensions of the framework for statistical measurement of quality of life deal with objective functional capabilities of persons (such as material living conditions, living environment, leisure and social interactions, employment, etc), any measurement of quality of life should also extend to cover the subjective well-being of persons. Measuring subjective well-being, in addition to aggregating people’s experiences of these objective dimensions by implicitly weighing their own preferences, is perhaps the only way to take into account people’s diverse choices, priorities and values.
In a European comparative context, we need to take into account that these widely differing priorities and values are also shaped by societal structures, norms and cultural background, which may vary between the different countries. The importance assigned to each of the objective dimensions of quality of life may also, therefore, differ at the aggregate country level. Measuring subjective well-being also provides valuable insight into the role played by objective capabilities as determinants of well-being.
But even setting these considerations aside, measuring well-being has an inherent appeal: it is arguably the ultimate aim of all EU policies, and the common thread that runs through them all. Promoting the well-being of people in Europe is one of the principal aims of the European Union, as set forth by the Treaty on European Union.
Subjective well-being encompasses three distinct but complementary sub-dimensions: life satisfaction (or evaluation), i.e. a person’s cognitive overall assessment of their life; affects (the presence of positive feelings, such as joy, and the absence of negative feelings, such as sadness or anger); and eudaimonics (the feeling that one’s life has a meaning), as specified in the OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being. The first sub-dimension, which looks at an entire life rather than fleeting experiences, and gives an overall view of all life domains taken together, provides a more stable perspective. Life satisfaction involves a cognitive, evaluative reflection on present and past experiences. There is a subtle but significant difference between the concepts (and the statistical measurement) of happiness and life satisfaction, which must be taken into account when interpreting relevant statistical data.
However, this lifetime and encompassing perspective also presents difficulties for the statistical measurement of life satisfaction: making an unbiased overall evaluation of one’s life requires a survey respondent to make a conscious effort and the results may depend on the timing and circumstances of the survey. For example, the assessment could be influenced by fleeting experiences such as the time of day or day of the week, or weather conditions, but these influences should cancel out in a large sample. An additional methodological difficulty stems from the entirely subjective nature of this metric. In other aspects of quality of life, which focus on functional capabilities, assessments based on perceptions can often be compared with and cross-checked against objective measures. There is, however, no such objectively measurable counterpart for life satisfaction. Nonetheless, this is a measure easy to comprehend and communicate.
Life satisfaction in Europe
The data presented here come from the 2018 EU-SILC Ad hoc Module on Material deprivation, well-being and housing difficulties.On average, as shown in Figure 1, Europeans rate their satisfaction with life in general at 7.3 on a scale from 0 (very dissatisfied) to 10 (very satisfied). It is highest in Ireland and the Nordic countries (though also notably high in Austria and Poland), and lowest in Bulgaria (5.4). Croatia, Lithuania, Greece and Hungary also show quite low levels of satisfaction. However, it should be noted that in most countries (with the exception of Bulgaria) average levels of life satisfaction were higher than 6 (i.e. satisfied rather than dissatisfied).
There are also regional patterns. People in the Nordic countries tend to be more satisfied with their lives than people in the Baltic countries and some of the Member States located in the south and east of the European Union. While this gap deserves more systematic investigation, one cannot entirely ignore economic and historical factors. Most of the countries in this ‘considerably less satisfied’ group were, and still are, characterised by a low level of income in the near past (as indicated for example by PPP adjusted GDP per capita). Possibly also important is the fact that a significant part of the population, the older generations, had experienced lasting and dramatic reversals in the economic, social, welfare and political circumstances of their lives.
Information about the well-being of EU citizens has also been collected in 2013. During the period from 2013 to 2018, average overall life satisfaction in the EU-27 has slightly increased, from 7 to 7.3 (see Figure 2). In most countries, which were at or under the EU average in 2018, life satisfaction increased at least slightly, with the exception of Lithuania, in which in decreased by 0.3. Small decreases (0.1-0.2) were also seen in Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, but the general level remains high in these countries. On the other hand, quite large increases were noted in a few countries: Cyprus (0.9), Ireland (0.7) Czechia, Estonia, Poland and Portugal (0.5). The rest of the countries, with the exception of the 4 noted above, also registered at least small increases in the average life satisfaction of their population.
Another sub-dimension of overall life satisfaction is affects, the presence of positive feelings like happiness and the absence of negative feelings. This dimension is analysed in Figure 3, as measured by the percentage of Europeans who answer that they have been happy always or most of the time during the last 4 weeks. In general, a high level of life satisfaction correlates with high percentages of people being happy always or most of the time. For example, as shown in Figure 3, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and Finland, all of which have some the highest levels of life satisfaction (averages over 7.5 while the EU-27 average stands at 7.3), also have the highest proportion of positive answers for this question (over 75.0%, while the European average is 62.4 %).
This indicator may reveal subtle but important differences underlying overall life satisfaction levels. While the percentage of people being happy always or most of the time is also at a record low for Bulgaria (34.9 %, the second lowest), in Greece (46.4 %), it is closer to the European average (62.4 %). Also remarkable is the fact that for Greece there is a more significant increase for this indicator (14.8 percentage points, the highest in the EU) as compared to life satisfaction, for which only a modest increase of 0.2 has been recorded. This indicates that the reasons underlying the similarly low levels of life satisfaction in the two countries are quite different.
Life satisfaction by income and age groups
As a general rule, those with high incomes tend to be more satisfied with their lives (7.8 on average for the highest income quantile) than the ones with the lowest earnings (6.6 on average for the lowest income quantile)(see Figure 4). However, even people in the lowest income quantile tend to be more satisfied with their lives than not (reporting an average of more than 5, except in Bulgaria and Croatia; and the candidate country Serbia). This income-related gap varies significantly between countries, showing a general pattern of greater variance in levels of life satisfaction between economic strata in those countries in which average life satisfaction is lower. In Bulgaria, a difference of over two points in the scale is observed between the lowest and the top quantiles (from 4.1 to 6.6 respectively), and differences of a similar order of magnitude are observed in many other countries where the overall life satisfaction level is relatively low. On the other hand, in many of the countries in which mean life satisfaction is higher than the EU average this difference tends to be smaller than 1 percentage point (0.8 in Finland and Malta, 0.9 in France and the Netherlands). Despite this, it must be emphasised that there is no statistically significant correlation of gaps in life satisfaction averages by country with inequality measurements, as expressed by their corresponding Gini coefficients . The pattern observed in life satisfaction inequality is, however, consistent with the one observed for income levels and inequalities and described in the article on Quality of life indicators - material living conditions. It must also be noted that the average differences between the highest and the lowest income quantiles seems to have increased a bit between 2013 and 2018.
While there is no difference, on average, in the level of life satisfaction of men and women, age does seem to play a determinant role. Life satisfaction consistently decreases with age until the age of 65, after which it increases again, sometimes leading to levels of life satisfaction for senior citizens similar to or even exceeding those of the youngest generation (see Figure 5). Existing evidence suggests that there is a U-shaped relationship between age and life satisfaction, where life satisfaction is the lowest in the middle age, when controlling for demographic and economic status. Interestingly, this pattern can be noted for some of the EU Member States when levels of life satisfaction are analysed by age group in 2018. This is notably visible in the English speaking countries (the United Kingdom and Ireland); Germany, Luxembourg and Switzerland; and to a lesser extent the Nordic countries (for which the averages for the age groups are rather similar in most cases). On the other hand, income follows a reverse U curve and the two are not necessarily associated (i.e. people of working age report lower levels of life satisfaction, although they have higher income levels). This is a good example of how quality of life measures convey more nuanced information and insight than that provided by income indicators alone.
In many other EU countries, a different relationship between age and life satisfaction is apparent: life satisfaction decreases with age. This is also the case in the EU as a whole in 2018, where the level of life satisfaction was 7.8 for the youngest generation (16-24), 7.4 for people aged 35-49, and 7.2 for people aged 65-74 (see Figure 6). This pattern was repeated in many countries and was very visible in Austria, Czechia, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, France, Portugal, Slovakia, Estonia, Croatia, Cyprus, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Greece and Bulgaria. In Belgium, the Netherlands and Malta age seems to have a negligible impact on life satisfaction; while in Denmthe Baltic countries and members from the eastern part of the European Union, we see a wide gap between the level of life satisfaction of the youngest generation (16-24) and that of all the other age groups. Also due to this fact, the differences in overall life satisfaction levels between the countries are relatively lower when the youngest generation of Europeans (16-24) is examined separately. It still ranges between 6.3 in Bulgaria to 8.4 in Austria, while for those between 65 and 74 it is as low as 4.8 in Bulgaria, and as high as 8.3 in Ireland and Finland. For the Baltic countries and members from the eastern part of the European Union, this is the first generation that has grown up entirely in a democratic society. This may corroborate the hypothesis stated previously on the effect of the economic, social and political transition experienced by older generations. Also, the younger generations may be benefiting to a larger extent from the opportunities and policy changes that have followed the EU enlargement.
Besides the effect of age and income, life satisfaction seems to be dependent on the level of educational attainment (reflecting differences from an average of 6.8 for people with primary education only to an average of 7.8 for those with tertiary education) (see Figure 6). It also depends on household type, with an average of 6.8 for single people and 7.3 for couples without children and 7.6 for households with dependent children. The fact that households with dependent children are more satisfied than those without is actually rather specific to the European context, as research on other continents has often found the contrary. On the other hand, there are two demographic categorizations for which at European level there is no difference, notably between males and females and big cities, towns and suburbs and rural areas. But this may conceal opposing trends in the Member States. This is definitely the case for the degree of urbanization, as in countries like the Nordic Member States those living in the rural areas are more satisfied, while in Romania and Bulgaria those living in the cities are significantly more satisfied.
Europeans tend to be quite satisfied with life in general, reporting an average of 7.3 out of 10.0, while in all but one country, average levels were over 6. There are, however, clear regional patterns: people in Nordic countries, as well as western parts of the European Union, tend to be more satisfied with their lives than people in the Baltic countries, the Mediterranean area and eastern parts of the European Union. High levels of life satisfaction are in general correlated with high percentages of people being happy always or most of the time in the last 4 weeks.
Income has an impact on life satisfaction. But while the highest earners tend to be more satisfied with their lives than those with the lowest incomes, even people in the lowest income quantile tend to be more satisfied with their lives than not. The impact of income on life satisfaction tends to be more significant as the overall levels of life satisfaction of a society decrease. Thus, when comparing countries, the income-related gap between economic strata regarding life satisfaction increases as the overall level for a country gets lower.
Other demographic and socio-economic factors such as age, educational attainment, household type and degree of urbanization also play a significant role. There is a notable age-related pattern. Life satisfaction seems to decrease with age in the European Union, except in some English speaking, Nordic and Benelux countries. On the other hand, educational attainment has a positive impact on life satisfaction, as does being in a couple, and having children.
Source data for tables and graphs
The dimension “overall experience of life” requires data on life satisfaction, on positive and negative affect, and on the sense of purpose in life. These were collected in the SILC 2013 Ad-hoc module on Subjective Well-Being (available in 2015) and the data collection was partly repeated in 2018 (and is available since end 2019). The variable life satisfaction will be collected yearly starting with 2021 (available end 2022), while the frequency of being happy will be collected every 6 years starting with 2022 (available end 2023). The variable sense of purpose in life has been discontinued.
The measurement of subjective well-being is perhaps the only way to take into account people’s diverse choices, priorities and values, and the relative importance they assign to the objective functional capabilities  measured by other dimensions. The dimension «overall experience of life» of the Quality of Life framework refers to quality of life subjective appreciation (as contrasted to quality of life rather objective determinants measured by the other dimensions).
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- Eurofound (2012), 3rd European Quality of Life Survey — Quality of life in Europe: Impacts of the crisis, p. 18