I. Empirical View
I.1 Cross-country evidence
Happiness around the world, country by country
The World Happiness Report is a well-known source of cross-country data and research on self-reported life satisfaction. The map below shows, country by country, the 'happiness scores' published in the World Happiness Report 2017.
The underlying source of the happiness scores in the World Happiness Report is the Gallup World Poll—a set of nationally representative surveys undertaken in more than 160 countries in over 140 languages. The main life evaluation question asked in the poll is: "Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?" (Also known as the "Cantril Ladder".)
The map below plots the average answer that survey-respondents provided to this question in different countries. As with the steps of the ladder, values in the map range from 0 to 10.
There are large differences across countries. According to 2016 figures, Nordic countries top the ranking: Finland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Iceland have the highest scores (all with averages above 7). In the same year, the lowest national scores correspond to Central African Republic, South Sudan, Tanzania, Rwanda and Haiti (all with average scores below 3.5).
You can click on any country on the map to plot time-series for specific countries.
As we can see, self-reported life satisfaction correlates with other measures of well-being—richer and healthier countries tend to have higher average happiness scores. (More on this in the section below.)
Changes in happiness over time—Findings from the World Value Survey
In addition to the Gallup World Poll (discussed above), the World Value Survey also provides cross-country data on self-reported life satisfaction. These are the longest available time series of cross-country happiness estimates that include non-European nations.
The World Value Survey collects data from a series of representative national surveys covering almost 100 countries, with the earliest estimates dating back to 1981. In these surveys, respondents are asked: "Taking all things together, would you say you are (i) Very happy, (ii) Rather happy, (iii) Not very happy or (iv) Not at all happy". The visualization below plots the share of people answering they are Very happy or Rather happy.
As we can see, in the majority of countries the trend is positive: In 49 of the 69 countries with data from two or more surveys, the most recent observation is higher than the earliest. In some cases, the improvement has been very large; in Zimbabwe, for example, the share of people who reported being 'very happy' or 'rather happy' went from 56.4% in 2004 to 82.1% in 2014.
Changes in happiness over time—Findings from Eurobarometer
The Eurobarometer collects data on life satisfaction as part of their public opinion surveys. For several countries, these surveys have been conducted at least annually for more than 40 years. The visualization below shows the share of people who report being 'very satisfied' or 'fairly satisfied' with their standards of living, according to this source.
Two points are worth emphasizing. First, estimates of life satisfaction often fluctuate around trends. In France, for example, we can see that the overall trend in the period 1974-2016 is positive; yet there is a pattern of ups and downs. And second, despite temporary fluctuations, decade-long trends have been generally positive for most European countries.
In most cases, the share of people who say they are 'very satisfied' or 'fairly satisfied' with their life has gone up over the full survey period.2 Yet there are some clear exceptions, of which Greece is the most notable example. Add Greece to the chart and you can see that in 2007, around 67% of the Greeks said they were satisfied with their life; but five years later, after the financial crisis struck, the corresponding figure was down to 32.4%. Despite recent improvements, Greeks today are on average much less satisfied with their lives than before the financial crisis. No other European country in this dataset has gone through a comparable negative shock.
More than averages—the distribution of life satisfaction scores
Most of the studies comparing happiness and life satisfaction among countries focus on averages. However, distributional differences are also important.
Life satisfaction is often reported on a scale from 0 to 10, with 10 representing the highest possible level of satisfaction. This is the so-called 'Cantril Ladder'. The below visualization shows how responses are distributed across steps in this ladder. In each case, the height of bars is proportional to the fraction of answers at each score. Each differently-colored distribution refers to a world region; and for each region, we have overlaid the distribution for the entire world as a reference.
These plots show that in sub-Saharan Africa—the region with the lowest average scores–the distributions are consistently to the left of those in Europe. In economics lingo, we observe that the distribution of scores in European countries stochastically dominates the distribution in sub-Saharan Africa.
This means that the share of people who are 'happy' is lower in sub-Saharan Africa than in Western Europe, independently of which score in the ladder we use as a threshold to define 'happy'. Similar comparisons can be made by contrasting other regions with high average scores (e.g. North America, Australia and New Zealand) against those with low average scores (e.g. South Asia).
Another important point to notice is that the distribution of self-reported life satisfaction in Latin America is high across the board—it is consistently to the right of other regions with roughly comparable income levels, such as Central and Eastern Europe.
This is part of a broader pattern: Latin American countries tend to have a higher subjective well-being than other countries with comparable levels of economic development. As we will see in the section on social environment, culture and history matter for self-reported life satisfaction.
If you are interested in data on country-level distributions of scores, the Pew Global Attitudes Survey provides such figures for more than 40 countries.
(Mis)perceptions about the happiness of others
We tend to underestimate the average happiness of people around us. The following visualization shows this for countries around the world, using data from Ipsos' Perils of Perception—a cross-country survey asking people to guess what others have answered to the happiness question in the World Value Survey.
The horizontal axis in the chart below shows the actual share of people who said they are 'Very Happy' or 'Rather Happy' in the World Value Survey; the vertical axis shows the average guess of the same number (i.e. the average guess that respondents made of the share of people reporting to be 'Very Happy' or 'Rather Happy' in their country).
If respondents would have guessed the correct share, all observations would fall on the red 45-degree line. But as we can see, all countries are significantly below the 45-degree line. In other words, people in every country underestimated self-reported happiness. The most extreme deviations are in Asia—South Koreans tend to think that 24% of people report being happy, when in reality 90% do.
The highest guesses in this sample (Canada and Norway) are 60%. This is lower than the lowest actual value of self-reported happiness in any country in the sample (corresponding to Hungary at 69%).
Why do people get their guesses so wrong? It's not as simple as brushing aside these numbers by saying they reflect differences in 'actual' vs. reported happiness.
One possible argument is that people tend to misreport their own happiness, therefore the average guesses might be a correct indicator of true life satisfaction (and an incorrect indicator of reported life satisfaction). However, for this to be true, people would have to commonly misreport their own happiness while also assuming that others do not misreport theirs.
Alternately, there is substantial evidence showing that ratings of one's happiness made by friends correlate with one's happiness (discussed in more detail below), and that people are generally good at evaluating emotions from simply watching facial expressions (also discussed below). Hence, a more likely explanation is that people tend to be positive about themselves, but negative about other people they don't know.
It has been observed in other contexts that people can be optimistic about their own future, while at the same time being deeply pessimistic about the future of their nation or the world. We discuss this phenomenon in more detail in our entry on optimism and pessimism, specifically in a section dedicated to individual optimism and social pessimism.
I.2 Within-country evidence
Life satisfaction inequalities between East and West Germany
National aggregates of self-reported life satisfaction, such as those discussed above, mask within-country inequalities. In the map below we focus on regional inequalities within Germany—specifically the gap in happiness between West and East Germany.
The map below plots self-reported life satisfaction in Germany (using the Cantril Ladder), aggregating averages scores at the level of Federal States.3 The first thing that stands out is a clear divide between the East and the West, along the political division that existed before the reunification of Germany in 1990.
Several academic studies have looked more closely at this 'happiness gap' in Germany using data from more detailed surveys, such as the German Socio-Economic Panel (e.g. Petrunyk and Pfeifer 2016).4 These studies provide two main insights:
First, the gap has been narrowing in recent years—and this is true both for the raw average differences, as well as for the 'conditional differences' that can be estimated after controlling for socioeconomic and demographic differences. You can see how the gap has been narrowing since reunification in these charts from Petrunyk and Pfeifer (2016).
And second, the differences in household income and unemployment status are important factors that contribute to the observed differences in self-reported life satisfaction—yet even after controlling for these and other socioeconomic and demographic differences, the East-West gap remains significant.
The fact that socioeconomic and demographic differences do not fully predict the observed East-West differences in self-reported happiness is related to a broader empirical phenomenon: Culture and history matter for self-reported life satisfaction—and in particular, ex-communist countries tend to have a lower subjective well-being than other countries with comparable levels of economic development. (More on this in the section on social environment.)
Happiness inequality in the US and other rich countries
The General Social Survey (GSS) in the US is a survey administered to a nationally representative sample of about 1,500 respondents each year since 1972, and is an important source of information on long-run trends of self-reported life satisfaction in the country.5
Using this source, Stevenson and Wolfers (2008)6 show that while the national average has remained broadly constant, inequality in happiness has fallen substantially in the US in recent decades.
The authors further note that this is true both when we think about inequality in terms of the dispersion of answers, and also when we think about inequality in terms of gaps between demographic groups. They note that two-thirds of the black-white happiness gap has been eroded (although today white Americans remain happier on average, even after controlling for differences in education and income), and the gender happiness gap has disappeared entirely (women used to be slightly happier than men, but they are becoming less happy, and today there is no statistical difference once we control for other characteristics).7
The results from Stevenson and Wolfers are consistent with other studies looking at changes of happiness inequality (or life satisfaction inequality) over time. In particular, researchers have noted that there is a correlation between economic growth and reductions in happiness inequality—even when income inequality is increasing at the same time. The visualization below, from Clark, Fleche and Senik (2015)8 shows this. It plots the evolution of happiness inequality within a selection of rich countries that experienced uninterrupted GDP growth.
In this chart, happiness inequality is measured by the dispersion—specifically the standard deviation—of answers in the World Value Survey. As we can see, there is a broad negative trend. In their paper the authors show that the trend is positive in countries with falling GDP.
Why could it be that happiness inequality falls with rising income inequality?
Clark, Fleche, and Senik argue that part of the reason is that the growth of national income allows for the greater provision of public goods, which in turn tighten the distribution of subjective well-being. This can still be consistent with growing income inequality, since public goods such as better health affect incomes and well-being differently.
Another possibility is that economic growth in rich countries has translated into a more diverse society in terms of cultural expressions (e.g. through the emergence of alternative lifestyles), which has allowed people to converge in happiness even if they diverge in incomes, tastes and consumption. Steven Quartz and Annette Asp explain this hypothesis in a New York Times article, discussing evidence from experimental psychology.
II. Correlates, Determinants, and Consequences
Higher national incomes go together with higher average life satisfaction
If we compare life satisfaction reports from around the world at any given point in time, we immediately see that countries with higher average national incomes tend to have higher average life satisfaction scores. In other words: People in richer countries tend to report higher life satisfaction than people in poorer countries. The below scatter plot shows this.
Each dot in the visualization below represents one country. The vertical position of the dots shows national average self-reported life satisfaction in the Cantril Ladder (a scale ranging from 0-10 where 10 is the highest possible life satisfaction); while the horizontal position shows GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity (i.e. GDP per head after adjusting for inflation and cross-country price differences).
This correlation holds even if we control for other factors: Richer countries tend to have higher average self-reported life satisfaction than poorer countries that are comparable in terms of demographics and other measurable characteristics. You can read more about this in the World Happiness Report 2017, specifically the discussion in Chapter 2.
As we show below, income and happiness also tend to go together within countries and across time.
Higher personal incomes go together with higher self-reported life satisfaction
Above we point out that richer countries tend to be happier than poorer countries. Here we show that the same tends to be true within countries: richer people within a country tend to be happier than poorer people in the same country. The visualisation below shows this through a set of plots connecting income and happiness by income quintiles.
Each panel in this visualization is a connected scatter plot for a specific country. This means that for each country, we observe a line joining five points: each point marks the average income within an income quintile (horizontal axis) against the average self-reported life satisfaction of people at that income quintile (vertical axis).
What does this visualization tell us? We see that in all cases lines are upward sloping: people in higher income quintiles tend to have higher average life satisfaction. Yet in some countries the lines are steep and linear (e.g. in Costa Rica richer people are happier than poorer people across the whole income distribution); while in some countries the lines are less steep and non-linear (e.g. the richest group of people in the Dominican Republic is as happy as the second-richest group).
The next visualisation presents the same data, but instead of plotting each country separately, it shows all countries in one grid.
The resulting connected scatter plot may be messy, resembling a 'spaghetti' chart, but it is helpful to confirm the overall pattern: despite kinks here and there, lines are by and large upward sloping.
A snapshot of the correlation between income and happiness—between and within countries
Do income and happiness tend to go together? The visualization below shows that the answer to this question is yes, both within and across countries.
It may take a minute to wrap your head around this visualization, but once you do, you can see that it handily condenses the key information from the previous three charts into one.
To show the income-happiness correlation across countries, the chart below plots the relationship between self-reported life satisfaction on the vertical axis and GDP per capita on the horizontal axis. Each country is an arrow on the grid, and the location of the arrow tells us the corresponding combination of average income and average happiness.
To show the income-happiness correlation within countries, each arrow has a slope corresponding to the correlation between household incomes and self-reported life satisfaction within that country. In other words: the slope of the arrow shows how strong the relationship between income and life satisfaction is within that country. (This chart gives you a visual example of how the arrows were constructed for each country). 9
If an arrow points northeast, that means richer people tend to report higher life satisfaction than poorer people in the same country. If an arrow is flat (i.e. points east), that means rich people are on average just as happy as poorer people in the same country.
As we can see, there is a very clear pattern: richer countries tend to be happier than poorer countries (observations are lined up around an upward-sloping trend), and richer people within countries tend to be happier than poorer people in the same countries (arrows are consistently pointing northeast).
It's important to note that the horizontal axis is measured in a logarithmic scale. The cross-country relationship we would observe in a linear scale would be different, since at high national income levels, slightly higher national incomes are associated with a smaller increase in average happiness than at low levels of national incomes. In other words, the cross-country relationship between income and happiness is not linear on income (it is 'log-linear'). We use the logarithmic scale to highlight two key facts: (i) at no point in the global income distribution is the relationship flat; and (ii) a doubling of the average income is associated with roughly the same increase in the reported life-satisfaction, irrespective of the position in the global distribution.
These findings have been explored in more detail in a number of recent academic studies. Importantly, the much-cited paper by Stevenson and Wolfers (2008)10 shows that these correlations hold even after controlling for various country characteristics such as demographic composition of the population, and are robust to different sources of data and types of subjective well-being measures.
Economic growth and happiness
In the charts above we show that there is robust evidence of a strong correlation between income and happiness across and within countries at fixed points in time. Here we want to show that, while less strong, there is also a correlation between income and happiness across time. Or, put differently, as countries get richer, the population tends to report higher average life satisfaction.
The following chart uses data from the World Value Survey to plot the evolution of national average incomes and national average happiness over time. To be specific, this chart shows the share of people who say they are 'very happy' or 'rather happy' in the World Value Survey (vertical axis), against GDP per head (horizontal axis). Each country is drawn as a line joining first and last available observations across all survey waves.11
As we can see, countries that experience economic growth also tend to experience happiness growth across waves in the World Value Survey. And this is a correlation that holds after controlling for other factors that also change over time (in this chart from Stevenson and Wolfers (2008) you can see how changes in GDP per capita compare to changes in life satisfaction after accounting for changes in demographic composition and other variables).
An important point to note here is that economic growth and happiness growth tend to go together on average. Some countries in some periods experience economic growth without increasing happiness. The experience of the US in recent decades is a case in point. These instances may seem paradoxical given the evidence—we explore this question in the following section.
The Easterlin Paradox
The observation that economic growth does not always go together with increasing life satisfaction was first made by Richard Easterlin in the 1970s. Since then, there has been much discussion over what came to be known as the 'Easterlin Paradox'.
At the heart of the paradox was the fact that richer countries tend to have higher self-reported happiness, yet in some countries for which repeated surveys were available over the course of the 1970s, happiness was not increasing with rising national incomes. This combination of empirical findings was paradoxical because the cross-country evidence (countries with higher incomes tended to have higher self-reported happiness) did not, in some cases, fit the evidence over time (countries seemed not to get happier as national incomes increased).
Notably, Easterlin and other researchers relied on data from the US and Japan to support this seemingly perplexing observation. If we look closely at the data underpinning the trends in these two countries, however, these cases are not in fact paradoxical.
Let us begin with the case of Japan. There, the earliest available data on self-reported life satisfaction came from the so-called 'Life in Nation surveys', which date back to 1958. At first glance, this source suggests that mean life satisfaction remained flat over a period of spectacular economic growth (see for example this chart from Easterlin and Angelescu 2011).12 Digging a bit deeper, however, we find that things are more complex.
Stevenson and Wolfers (2008)13 show that the life satisfaction questions in the 'Life in Nation surveys' changed over time, making it difficult—if not impossible—to track changes in happiness over the full period. The visualization below splits the life satisfaction data from the surveys into sub-periods where the questions remained constant. As we can see, the data is not supportive of a paradox: the correlation between GDP and happiness growth in Japan is positive within comparable survey periods. The reason for the alleged paradox is in fact mismeasurement of how happiness changed over time.
In the US, the explanation is different, but can once again be traced to the underlying data. Specifically, if we look more closely at economic growth in the US over the recent decades, one fact looms large: growth has not benefitted the majority of people. Income inequality in the US is exceptionally high and has been on the rise in the last four decades, with incomes for the median household growing much more slowly than incomes for the top 10%. As a result, trends in aggregate life satisfaction should not be seen as paradoxical: the income and standard of living of the typical US citizen has not grown much in the last couple of decades. (You can read more about this in our entry on inequality and incomes across the distribution.)
GDP per capita vs Life satisfaction across survey questions, Japan, 1958-2007 – Stevenson and Wolfers (2008)14
Life expectancy and life satisfaction
Health is an important predictor of life satisfaction, both within and among countries. In the visualization below, we provide evidence of the cross-country relationship.
Each dot in the scatterplot below represents one country. The vertical position of the dots shows national life expectancy at birth, and the horizontal position shows national average self-reported life satisfaction in the Cantril Ladder (a scale ranging from 0-10 where 10 is the highest possible life satisfaction).
As we can see, there is a strong positive correlation: countries where people tend to live longer are also countries where people tend to say more often that they are satisfied with their lives. A similar relationship holds for other health outcomes (e.g. life satisfaction tends to be higher in countries with lower child mortality).
The relationship plotted below clearly reflects more than just the link between health and happiness, since countries with high life expectancy also tend to be countries with many other distinct characteristics. However, the positive correlation between life expectancy and life satisfaction remains after controlling for observable country characteristics, such as incomes and social protection. You can read more about this in the World Happiness Report 2017, specifically the discussion in Chapter 2.
Mental health and happiness
Above we showed that countries with better national health outcomes tend to have higher self-reported life satisfaction. In the visualization below, we provide evidence of the relationship between health and subjective well-being within countries—specifically, we focus here on mental health and self-reported life satisfaction.
Each bar in the visualization below measures the extent to which mental illness (depression and anxiety) is associated with self-reported life satisfaction, once we control for physical illness and other factors such as income and education. In other words, the bars show a 'conditional correlation'—the strength of the link between mental illness and happiness after accounting for other factors.
The negative values show that people who have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety tend to be more likely to have lower self-reported life satisfaction.
The size of the coefficients, particularly in the US, and Australia, tell us that the relationship we observe is very strong. For context, in the UK, the US and Australia the magnitude of the correlation between mental illness and life satisfaction is higher than the magnitude for the correlation between income and life satisfaction.
Clearly, this correlation is likely the result of a two-way relationship: depressed and anxious people are less likely to be happy, and unhappy people are more likely to be depressed or anxious. Nevertheless, it is still important to bear in mind that anxiety, depression and unhappiness often go together.
II.3 Life events
How do common life events affect happiness?
Do people tend to adapt to common life events by converging back to a baseline level of happiness?
Clark et al. (2008)15 use data from the German Socio-Economic Panel to identify groups of people experiencing significant life and labour market events, and trace how these events affect the evolution of their life satisfaction. The following visualization shows an overview of their main findings. In each individual chart, the red lines mark the estimated effect of a different event at a given point in time (with 'whiskers' marking the range of confidence of each estimate).
In all cases the results are split by gender, and time is labeled so that 0 marks the point when the corresponding event took place (with negative and positive values denoting years before and after the event). All estimates control for individual characteristics, so the figures show the effect of the event after controlling for other factors (e.g. income, etc.).
The first point to note is that most events denote the evolution of a latent situation: People grow unhappy in the period building up to a divorce, while they grow happy in the period building up to a marriage.
The second point is that single life events do tend to affect happiness in the short run, but people often adapt to changes. Of course, there are clear differences in the extent to which people adapt. In the case of divorce, life satisfaction first drops, then goes up and stays high. For unemployment, there is a negative shock both in the short and long-run, notably among men. And for marriage, life satisfaction builds up before, and fades out after the wedding.
In general, the evidence suggests that adaptation is an important feature of well-being. Many common but important life events have a modest long-term impact on self-reported happiness. Yet adaptation to some events, such as long-term unemployment, is neither perfect nor immediate.
Does disability correlate with life satisfaction?
A number of papers have noted that long-term paraplegics do not report themselves as particularly unhappy, when compared to non-paraplegics (see for example the much-cited paper by Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman, 1978).16
This assertion has received attention because it tells us something about the very meaning of well-being and has important consequences for policy. It is, for example, considered in courts of law with respect to the compensation for disability.
However, comparing differences in self-reported life satisfaction among people with different disability statuses is not an ideal source of evidence regarding the effect of tragedy on happiness. Non-paraplegics are potentially different to paraplegics in ways that are hard to measure. A better source of evidence are longitudinal surveys where people are tracked over time.
Oswald and Powdthavee (2008)17 use data from a longitudinal survey in the UK to explore whether accidents leading to disability imply long-term shocks to life satisfaction.
The chart below, from Oswald and Powdthavee, shows the average reported life satisfaction of a group of people who became seriously disabled (at time T) and remained seriously disabled in the two following years (T+1 and T+2). Here, 'seriously disabled' means that disability prevented them from being able to do day-to-day activities.
As we can see—and as the authors show more precisely through econometric techniques—those entering disability suffer a sudden drop in life satisfaction, and recover only partially. This supports the idea that while adaptation plays a role for common life events, the notion of life satisfaction is indeed sensitive to tragic events.
Life satisfaction of those entering serious disability, BHPS 1996-2002 – Oswald and Powdthavee (2006)
II.4 Social environment
The relationship between culture and life satisfaction
Comparisons of happiness among countries suggest that culture and history shared by people in a given society matter for self-reported life satisfaction. For example, as the chart below shows, culturally and historically similar Latin American countries have a higher subjective well-being than other countries with comparable levels of economic development. (This chart plots self-reported life satisfaction as measured in the 10-point Cantril ladder in the vertical axis, against GDP per capita in the horizontal axis).
Latin America is not a special case in this respect. Ex-communist countries, for example, tend to have lower subjective well-being than other countries with comparable characteristics and levels of economic development.
Academic studies in positive psychology discuss other patterns. Diener and Suh (2002) write: "In recent years cultural differences in subjective well-being have been explored, with a realization that there are profound differences in what makes people happy. Self-esteem, for example, is less strongly associated with life satisfaction, and extraversion is less strongly associated with pleasant affect in collectivist cultures than in individualist cultures".18
To our knowledge, there are no rigorous studies exploring the causal mechanisms linking culture and happiness. However, it seems natural to expect that cultural factors shape the way people collectively understand happiness and the meaning of life.
The relationship between sense of freedom and life satisfaction
A particular channel through which social environment may affect happiness is freedom: the society we live in may crucially affect the availability of options that we have to shape our own life.
The visualization below shows the relationship between self-reported sense of freedom and self-reported life satisfaction using data from the Gallup World Poll. The variable measuring life satisfaction corresponds to country-level averages of survey responses to the Cantril Ladder question (a 0-10 scale, where 10 is the highest level of life satisfaction); while the variable measuring freedom corresponds to the share of people who agree with the statement "In this country, I am satisfied with my freedom to choose what I do with my life".19
As we can see, there is a clear positive relationship: countries where people feel free to choose and control their lives tend to be countries where people are happier. As Inglehart et al. (2008)20 show, this positive relationship holds even after we control for other factors, such as incomes and strength of religiosity.
Interestingly, this chart also shows that while there are some countries where the perceived sense of freedom is high but average life satisfaction is low (e.g. Rwanda); there are no countries where the perceived sense of freedom is low but average life satisfaction is high (i.e. there are no countries in the top left area of the chart).
To our knowledge there are no rigorous studies exploring the causal mechanisms linking freedom and happiness. However, it seems natural to expect that self-determination and absence of coercion are important components of what people consider a happy and meaningful life.
The link between media and gloominess
A number of studies have found that there is a link between emotional exposure to negative content in news and changes in mood.
Johnston and Davey (1997),21 for example, conducted an experiment in which they edited short TV news to display positive, neutral or negative material, and then showed them to three different groups of people. The authors found that people who watched the ‘negative’ clip were more likely to report a sad mood.
This link between emotional content in news and changes in mood is all the more important if we consider that media gatekeepers tend to prefer negative to positive coverage of newsworthy facts (see, for example, Combs and Slovic 197922).
Of course, mood is not the same as life satisfaction. Yet, as we discuss below in the section on measurement and data quality, surveys measuring happiness often do capture emotional aspects of well-being. And in any case, people’s perceptions of what it means to lead a meaningful life are heavily influenced by their expectations of what is possible and likely to occur with their lives; and this has also been shown to depend on media exposure.23
(Middle School Student)
In my life, I have had many ups and downs. Some minor, some major. One of the most suspenseful moments in my life was at seven years old. I never really had a motto or a quote that I lived by until the year of 2008 when things got really confusing. From that moment, I created my own Law of Life, which was: If I tried hard enough and not quit, I would succeed. Now, all I had to do was follow through with it. Here is the story that shaped my values and my beliefs.
It all started the summer of 2008 when my dad acquired a medical position at a nearby hospital. We had to move from the Republic of Georgia to Connecticut, USA. For me, that meant leaving all my family and friends behind, and most intimidatingly, learning a whole new language. I didn’t realize the impact of the transition at first. After all, I was only seven years-old. Nevertheless, the cold and unforgiving reality hit me soon enough. The summer went by in a blur until I was standing in a room full of small children with an extremely amiable second grade teacher. I had not the slightest idea what was going on around me. Kids were talking too fast, their lips moving too swiftly for me to comprehend. Soon enough, my mom kissed me goodbye and I was left alone, isolated. Long story short, I didn’t understand anything throughout the day. I didn’t make any friends, and I came home crying. That routine would continue for a few weeks, devastating me even more. I caught onto a few new words here and there, but the pace was too rapid for me to adapt to as quickly as I hoped I would. I was enrolled in the school’s ESL (English Second Language) program to try to help me learn, but it wasn’t much help. So, I had to turn to something else, but what?
My mom was the person who mainly helped me establish my Law of Life and aided me in getting out of the dark trench into which I felt thrown. After she witnessed that I wasn’t really moving forward in my education due to my lack of English skills, she decided to refer me to the library to learn from books instead. My mom made it clear it was my decision, not anybody else’s. That was it; that push was all that I needed to put me on the right track, and then, it was all up to me. I had the choice of either going with the flow and gradually establishing fluency in English (which would take years), or I could take things into my own hands, and try to teach myself. At first, I didn’t want to be reading books and memorizing words while other kids my age played outside with their friends, but, if I wanted to succeed, did I have much of a choice? So, my decision was made, and the library visit was scheduled. It would be the first of many. In the library, I would take out a myriad of Amelia Bedelia and Nate the Great books. The text was large and easy to read which was perfect for my situation. Soon, with my mom’s help, I was pronouncing and learning the meaning of completely new words and phrases.
The improvement was immediate. In just a matter of weeks, I was able to communicate on a beginner/intermediate level with my peers, and things finally started to look up. I didn’t stop there. I was determined to graduate from the ESL program and finally be like everyone else. (Fitting in was very important to me at that age). So, from that point on, my mom drove me to library every single day, because I would fly through up to six short stories in a day, and needed daily reinforcements. Then, I would proceed to finish the five-minute homework I had for the day and immerse myself in those short story books, gaining vocabulary, improving my spelling, and increasing my reading speed.
In addition to reading, I had discovered another way at which I could learn. One thing that reading didn’t give me was the instructions on how to pronounce the words I read. So, I turned to Disney Channel shows. It might be considered odd, but I would record one thirty-minute episode and replay it up to five times. That way, each time, I would understand a little bit more of the plot and what the characters were saying. I would basically memorize their whole conversations, how they pronounce their words, and in what context I could use them. This also made reading much easier for me since I didn’t have to spell out the words in my head. Rather, I could just remember how it was said and read it fluently. That was an immense step forward in my journey.
I graduated the ESL program in the middle of third grade. My teacher stated that I had the quickest time in finishing the program, a matter of only a year and a half. Other kids that I learned with stayed until 5th or maybe even 6th grade to finish. Of course, I wasn’t special. All the other kids there could have progressed at the same rate, but they chose another route.
In the end, I don’t really regret the time I spent sitting with my nose in a book or re-watching a show’s episode until I understood it completely. If I had not tried and tried again to succeed in learning English at the fastest speed possible, I would, most likely, not have accomplished many of the things I have today. In comparison to six years ago, I’m in a much better place. Even to this day, I still keep some of my old vocabulary/spelling tests from second grade, starting from the first, to the last. It is always fulfilling to see the improvement as well as the long way I have come. By believing in myself and in the idea that if I tried hard enough I would succeed, I slowly etched my Law of Life into everything I do. Many kids think that they aren’t smart, aren’t athletic, or just cannot possibly achieve what they want because they didn’t accomplish it on the first try. It’s not the number of tries that matters, but the eventual success, that is what really counts. From that day on, whenever I fail or fall short, I know that all I have to do is go beyond the boundaries and try harder, again and again. Only then, will I succeed.
My Law of Life can easily be applied to my life now and to my future. The idea itself is quite universal. Anyone can use it. As Jim Rohn, motivational speakers says, “If you really want something, you will find a way. If you don’t, you will find an excuse.” In my case, whenever I fail at an athletic event or don’t do well on a test, I always keep in mind that I won’t quit, but try once more with a new strategy for success until I get it.
What is courage? Courage is the ability to be honest, having the quality of completeness and having strength to be an individual who stands up for what they believe in. In today’s society I am faced with many obstacles on a daily basis, yet because of courage, I can stay strong and keep reaching for the stars. Ernie Davis is one person who I have learned showed courage as a black man. He is a great role model whom I think about when I face obstacles.
Ernest R. Davis was born on December, 14, 1939, in New Salem, Pennsylvania. His parents separated very shortly after his birth, and his father was killed in a car accident. He grew up in poverty living in a coal mining town, Uniontown, Pittsburg. He was raised by his grandparents. He soon carried the name Ernie. He looked up to Jackie Robinson, being one of the first black players to have been on an All-American team. He also looked up to his grandfather because of how wise he was. He encouraged Ernie to go above and beyond and work hard in school because he knew if he didn’t that Ernie would end up in the coal mining business like him. He knew he was going to get somewhere. His mom remarried in 1959 and since she was now able to support him, he moved in with her and his stepfather in Elmira, New York.
Ernie told a story of a day walking along a railroad with one of his friends collecting bottles. Since there were no video games at this time, this is what most boys did for pastime. After collecting bottles, they would usually trade them in and get simple things like candy. One day they ran into a group of white boys. This is was his first inter-racial interaction. They threatened Ernie and his friend to give them the bottles or they would face the consequences. Ernie counted three boys and then five other boys came out the bushes with bats. Ernie’s friend ran away and jumped in a box car of an on-coming train, but Ernie stayed. He stuttered, “No!” and when a boy reached for Ernie turned and ran faster than lightening with them chasing after him. It was in that moment, Ernie realized how fast he was and how much he loved to run. He also realized what he would do with his gift to run. He knew it was hard for blacks to get into college so he was going to use sports to get there. He played football, basketball, and baseball in high school and over 30 colleges recruited him including UCLA and Notre Dame for football. He chose to play football at Syracuse because it was only 90 miles away from home.
Ernie helped Syracuse advance to the 1960 National Championship in the Cotton Bowl where they played and defeated Texas in his senior year. Ernie scored two touch towns in that game. One on offense and one on defense when he ran an 86 yard interception after coming back in the game with a hamstring injury. The injury worsened every time he was tackled or punched purposely in the leg by the opposing team. The referees did nothing to stop the fouls.
On the way to the game he saw young black boys working in fields. As his bus drove along he also saw a sign that said, “Go Ernie!” He saw a small number of black fans in the crowds at the game. He thought for a moment and remembered how during the West Virginia game, the players had to keep their helmets on at all times to protect them from flying bottles from the crowd. Just because their team looked different. There were only 3 black players on that team. His coach had told him not to cross the end zone because he was “colored” so he sent in someone else into the huddle when their team got close to the end zone. On one run, Ernie refused to run out-of-bounds and crossed the end zone to score a touchdown. Football wasn’t just a game anymore, but Ernie believed that he could make a difference in playing it. His exact words were, “It matters what you are playing for.” He wanted to create hope for those boys in the field, those people sitting in the bleachers, and the millions watching at home. He didn’t want any bottles to be thrown anymore. He was the first African American to win the Heisman trophy, which is awarded to the best college football player in the United States. He got the attention of President John F. Kennedy and got to meet him after the ceremony. He was the number one draft pick for the Cleveland Brown, which was his number one choice.
Sadly, Ernie never got to play professional football because he died, May, 18, 1963, of Leukemia. Ten thousand people attended the funeral where a telegram from John F. Kennedy was read. “He was an outstanding young man of great character who served and, my hope is, will continue to serve as an inspiration to young people of this country.” Over 40 years later he is still inspiring to people like me.
Today I write to say that Ernie Davis set a precedent for people to follow and that he makes it possible to believe I can achieve my goals in life. He faced much prejudice but that never stopped him and it shouldn’t stop me. He had strength and courage that helped him stay true to his integrity. In his honor the Cleveland Browns retired his #45 jersey.
Losing Yourself in Serving Others
(High School Student)
“The most sublime act is to set another before you.” Spoken by English poet William Blake, this quote reveals what I believe is a very important – if not the most important – thing a person can do. Putting others first involves the laying aside of our own interests and then willingly doing something for another person's benefit. This task, however, is not an easy one to perform; human nature itself has the tendency to focus on self-related matters. If we are to put others before ourselves, then we must break away from that egotistical way of thinking and consider the value of other people and their lives. Furthermore, as I begin to put others before my own interests, I feel my life has a meaningful purpose and direction.
There was an article written by Anne Keegan, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune Magazine, about a man named George. He had no home, and only owned the clothes he wore. He often stayed at the YMCA, which gave him a place to sleep at night. Sometimes on a cold morning, he would go to the warm police station and sit there for shelter from the freezing temperatures. There, he became friends with some police officers, who would occasionally buy a hot coffee for George. George also received a free breakfast every morning from Billy, a local restaurant owner. As the Christmas season approached, the police officers decided they would invite George to spend Christmas Day with them and their families. In addition to this, they surprised George with some presents – something which greatly astounded him. As George unwrapped each present, he could hardly believe that they were his to keep forever. As the officers gave George a ride home to the YMCA after the Christmas get-together, George requested that they stopped by Billy's diner. When the group reached Billy's diner, George took the precious, rewrapped gifts he received and walked into the diner. Upon greeting Billy, George earnestly said: “You've always been real good to me, Billy. Now I can be good to you. Merry Christmas!” As he said this, he gave all of his gifts to Billy.
This true story is simply remarkable for obvious reasons. To know that a man who possessed next to nothing gave away all of his priceless presents to another person – one who was not in need – really does reveal a truth that transcends material objects, success, and earthly fame. George, out of his poverty, gave away all his gifts, which were something he probably had never received. This is a fantastic example of putting others before self-centered interests. To me, a billionaire who halfheartedly gives thousands of dollars to charity cannot compare to the humble and generous sacrifice that George made. The generosity that was showed to him prompted him to be giving to another. This moving story is such an inspiration to me because I easily take what I have for granted, and tend to focus on the things I do not have. Hearing real life stories such as this one reminds me that living for myself is futile; it makes my life meaningless and leaves me feeling void. When I begin to shift my focus from myself to others, I get a feeling that is hard to describe with words. I realize that reaching out to others fills the void in my being that is present when I am just living for myself.
Although I do not have a phenomenal or memorable example that I can share, I do see the ramifications in my everyday life of living for myself versus living to serve others. As I reflect of the topic of putting others first, I find that selfless service can be put into practice in our normal daily lives. For instance, when I knew my mother had a busy day and developed a headache that would not leave her, I took the initiative of washing the dishes. This is certainly nothing to brag about; doing the dishes is not something involving great sacrifice. Yet after I did this simple, menial job, I felt that I was helping someone who needed it. I felt that I was not vainly living for myself; having compassion on another person actually made me feel more fulfilled. However, when I focus solely on making my own life better – by buying more fashionable clothes, spending more time with my group of friends rather than talking to someone who was lonely at school, or focusing on my desires while being blind to the needs and hurts of others – I end up having this hollow void in me that no material or cosmopolitan element can satisfy. Life then feels pointless, vacant, and insubstantial. The more I try to fill this void with material things, the more the size and intensity of this void increases.
There is an example of people trying to fill the void they feel that I see almost every day. Take the typical American teenage girl. Most girls these days, myself included, are not pleased with certain aspects of their outward appearance; perhaps it is their weight, stature, or eye color. So, some spend a lot of money on high-end makeup products, fake eyelashes, or other things that help to enhance their looks. Yet, even after using all these products, many girls are still left feeling not good enough, and feel they could improve even more, which causes them to spend more time and energy on making themselves look better. However, I also see girls who are not so preoccupied with material things but invest their energy in developing friendships with others and helping those in need. These are the people who seem much more content and at peace with themselves.
Something that continues to baffle me is the selflessness of those who live in poverty. There have been many scientific studies that revealed that poor people give more than the people who are well off. How can this be? It makes no logical sense that a person who has almost nothing can cheerfully give to another person who is just as much in need as he or she is. Yet, this happens. It is humorous to think of how most rich people having many of their desires met are not truly satisfied and happy, but a person in poverty, having practically none of their basic needs met, can humbly give and still be content and joyful. There must be an answer to this: putting another person before self-centered desires is a powerful action that not only benefits the one who receives, but also gives a sense of wellbeing and fulfillment to the one who gives.
Focusing on the needs of others first does not have to involve grandiose sacrifices. It is something that can be done in everyday life, and is something that, I believe, should be done daily. Anyone can serve. Service can be as little as washing the dishes, tutoring someone who needs help, or sitting next to someone who is alone. There is something indescribable about lowering oneself and exalting another person. It greatly helps the person in need, and also leaves the giver with a feeling of satisfaction. As Martin Luther King Jr. wisely said: “Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
The Gift of Giving
I always thought it was better to receive than to give, but when my family went to donate clothes and other items to the homeless shelter, I realized that it’s better to give than to receive. One year ago we went to the homeless shelter in Norwich and donated toys and clothes. It was my birthday and my parents wanted me to donate all of the clothing that I had outgrown as well as toys I no longer played with. I didn’t really mind because the new toys I got for my birthday were better, especially one in particular.
My favorite gift was the Lego Star War Figurine. I really enjoy building Legos, but my mom didn’t want me to start building it while we were in the car because she was worried I’d loose the pieces in the seats. I liked just looking at the box anyway, seeing the clone trooper on great, big, gray walker. It was a challenge not to open the box, but I was able to resist. However, I could picture myself at home building the walker and then finishing and marching around with the clone-riding walker pretending to slay the enemy.
We finally got to the homeless shelter and it was a very sad sight to see. It was kind of dark and gloomy and at first I didn’t even see the people inside. However, when we went further inside, I saw some kids and adults moping around the dark room with frowns on their faces and nothing to do. The sight of their faces was saddening to me and made me feel very pitiful and then I decided to do something I thought I’d never do. I took hold of my Lego set and dropped it right into the donation bin. After I did that, my sadness turned into pride raising my spirits ten fold. I felt like a good and generous kid in this dark place. I felt like I was the sun shining on a bright summer day.
Student reading her essay at
spring celebration banquet.