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Not Happy? That's Predictable

A new study shows that a number of factors influence unhappiness levels, while happiness isn't so clear cut.


Your joy is your own, but your misery might be society's, according to recent research.

A new working paper, based on a survey of 45,000 people in 29 European countries, takes a look at respondents’ satisfaction and happiness levels. Personal characteristics like age, educational attainment, income, ethnicity, and health status predict unhappiness levels much more consistently than happiness. Similarly, those characteristics appear to influence dissatisfaction levels more consistently than satisfaction levels.

If you're 65 or older, or still in school, you're probably in better shape than other groups, including the wealthy.

The survey asked roughly 2,000 people in each of 29 countries to score on a scale of one to 10: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole nowadays?” Respondents also answered the same question about how happy they were. The responses were consistent with earlier research that found a small fraction of the population feels most of the suffering. Most people go through their days without a single bad experience, but a minority experiences serious emotional stress for a good portion of their day. Along those lines, the disabled, the unemployed, the poor, and minorities had much higher levels of dissatisfaction (six to 18 percent above-average), while the well-educated and the rich (four and five percent below-average) were better off than average. More intriguingly, the well-educated and rich were not more likely to feel much more satisfied than average; they were only more likely to be less dissatisfied. The pattern across all types surveyed revealed stronger correlations between life status and dissatisfaction than satisfaction. That result held when comparing happiness and unhappiness levels.

So what groups are reporting the highest sense of well-being? If you're 65 or older, or still in school, you're probably in better shape than other groups, including the wealthy. The elderly and students reported roughly two to four percent higher levels of satisfaction and happiness. Dissatisfaction and unhappiness were also only a few tenths of a percentage point higher than average for the elderly and around three percent below average for those still in school.

Overall, belonging to an oppressed or isolated class seems to shape your misery more than your joy. You can shape your own positivity, but demography has outsize influence on your negativity. And at least according to this survey, the road to joy is finding a 50-year degree program.