Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2007: Core Module Report 2 - Subjective perceptions of well-being in Scotland?

Listen

3. HOW DOES THE SUBJECTIVE WELL-BEING OF PEOPLE LIVING IN SCOTLAND COMPARE WITH THAT OF THOSE LIVING IN OTHER COUNTRIES?

3.1 It is encouraging that subjective well-being appears to be high among people living in Scotland across all five domains of life satisfaction and happiness. However, looked at in isolation, and in the absence of trend data, there is a limit to what can be said about the results. As mentioned in the introduction, a key advantage of introducing these measures at the Scotland level is that it allows for up to date comparison with similar measures of subjective well-being collected periodically across European Union member states by the European Social Survey ( ESS). By including in SSA 2007 the same or similar measures of subjective well-being that are collected in other countries, it is possible to get a sense of how Scotland's apparently high levels of life satisfaction and happiness compare, not only with levels elsewhere in Europe, but also with the rest of the UK.

3.2 Since it was established in 2001, ESS has collected robust data on political and social attitudes across Europe using similarly rigorous methods to those employed on SSA. As with the Eurobarometer survey, it has not been possible until now to use ESS as a basis for comparison with any great confidence due to the very small size of its Scottish sample (c240 in 2006). With the inclusion of subjective well-being measures in SSA, up to date comparison is possible for the first time. To facilitate this comparison, the wording of two of the five subjective well being questions - happiness and life satisfaction in general - was taken directly from the ESS. Similar questions on satisfaction with the general standard of living and job satisfaction are also included in ESS 2006 10. The only area lacking a comparable ESS measure is 'satisfaction with family or personal life'.

3.3 Cross national comparison using subjective measures is not without its detractors. Critics such as Wilkinson (2007) question whether it is possible to make meaningful comparisons across linguistic and cultural borders in this way. Central to many of the objections on this issue is the problem of interpretation, and whether it is possible to assume that all cultures understand and interpret terms such as 'happiness' in the same way. However, Bell and Blanchflower (2007) and Donovan and Halpern (2002) among others point to the consistent results found both through time and across countries in studies which analyse individual's reports about their level of life satisfaction. In addition, studies of differences across linguistic subgroups within nations have shown that respondents tend to answer consistently regardless of the language used. For example, Layard (2005) points to the case of Switzerland, where French, German and Italian speakers all report higher levels of life satisfaction than do native French, Germans and Italians. Recently, research by Helliwell (2006) has addressed these concerns further by demonstrating that crosscountry differences in subjective well-being can be used to predict international differences in suicide behaviour. 11

3.4 In the following tables, the mean 'satisfaction' score for Scotland, taken from SSA, is placed alongside the mean scores for the 23 countries participating in the 2006 ESS, including the UK. 12 As has been noted, the wording of the question on overall life satisfaction was the same in both surveys. People were asked to say how satisfied they were with their life as a whole on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 was 'extremely dissatisfied' and 10 was 'extremely satisfied'. The first thing to note from Figure 2 is that across Europe people are, on the whole, more satisfied than dissatisfied with their lives - the exceptions being Russia, Hungary and Bulgaria with mean scores of 5, and Ukraine, where the average score was 4.

3.5 Second, it appears that Scotland has one of the highest levels of 'life satisfaction' in Europe, a mean score of 8.06 placing it at the top end of the scale alongside Switzerland and Denmark. It is important to note that Scotland is just one of nine countries across Europe which, after rounding, have a mean score of 8. Nonetheless, it is encouraging that the level of 'life satisfaction' in Scotland is at least on a par with many other countries in Europe.

Figure 2 Satisfaction with 'life as a whole nowadays' across European nations

Figure 2 Satisfaction with 'life as a whole nowadays' across European nations

Sample sizes:
Ukraine=1964, Bulgaria=1389, Russian Federation=2419, Hungary=1504, Portugal=2181, Slovakia=1748, Estonia= 1496, France=1986, Poland=1713, Germany=2912, Slovenia=1470, UK (excluding Scotland)=2155, Belgium=1795, Spain=1864, Cyprus=995, Ireland=1790, Netherlands=1887, Austria=2383, Norway=1746, Sweden=1924, Finland= 1893, Scotland ( SSA)=1495, Switzerland=1803, Denmark=1497

3.6 Turning to 'life satisfaction' in Scotland relative to the rest of the UK, it is now possible to further test Bell and Blanchflower's hypothesis that people living in Scotland are 'less happy and less satisfied with life' than those living elsewhere in the UK (Bell and Blanchflower, 2007). If it is true that subjective well-being is lower in Scotland than in the rest of the UK, then SSA and ESS data should show Scotland lagging behind on the 'life satisfaction' measure. As Figure 2 demonstrates, this does not appear to be the case. In fact Scotland has slightly higher average scores on 'life satisfaction' than the rest of the UK (excluding Scotland). Again it is important to note that the difference between the two amounted to less than a point (8.06 and 7.2 respectively). So whilst it would be unwise to conclude that subjective well-being is higher in Scotland than in the rest of the UK, there is little evidence to suggest that it is any worse. 13

3.7 Findings with respect to satisfaction with the 'general standard of living' across countries in Europe were similar (Figure 3) 14. As with 'life satisfaction' and 'happiness,' in the majority of countries people were largely positive about their standard of living. Once more the exceptions were Bulgaria, Ukraine and Russia where the average scores fell below the mid-point on the scale. Again Scotland compares favourably with a mean score of 8 (after rounding), placing it once more in the top five nations most satisfied with living standards.

Figure 3 Satisfaction with 'present/general' standard of living' across European countries

Figure 3 Satisfaction with 'present/general' standard of living' across European countries

Sample sizes:
Ukraine=1980, Bulgaria=1379, Russian Federation=2411, Hungary=1515, Portugal=2186, Slovakia=1755, Estonia= 1498, France=1986, Poland=1710, Germany=2910, Slovenia=1471, UK(excluding Scotland)=2159, Belgium=1797, Spain=1873, Cyprus=981, Ireland=1784, Netherlands=1886, Austria=2393, Norway=1748, Sweden=1921, Finland= 1890, Scotland ( SSA)=1498, Switzerland=1801, Denmark=1485

3.8 With respect to job satisfaction, the pattern across Europe reflects the findings in Chapter 2 on the lower levels of job satisfaction compared to other domains of subjective well being (Figure 4). 15 People in Scotland are therefore not alone in feeling less satisfied with their job than with their lives in general. However, even on this measure Scotland is on a par with the rest of the UK (both have an average score of 7) and Europe as a whole. While Scotland's comparative ranking is lower than for the other well-being measures, it is important to stress that there is less than a point of difference between Scotland and Denmark, which again has the highest score (7.04 and 7.82 respectively).

Figure 4 Mean satisfaction with 'present/main job' scores across European nations

Figure 4 Mean satisfaction with 'present/main job' scores across European nations

Sample sizes:
Ukraine=880, Bulgaria=594, Russian Federation=1239, Hungary=642, Portugal=1035, Slovakia=971, Estonia= 868, France=1096, Poland=812, Germany=1505, Slovenia=697, UK (excluding Scotland)=1161, Belgium=902, Spain=1027, Cyprus=523, Ireland=947, Netherlands=1109, Austria=1448, Norway=1213, Sweden=1242, Finland= 999, Scotland ( SSA)=829, Switzerland=1107, Denmark=950

Key points:

  • Levels of subjective well-being in Scotland compare favourably with those of the 23 countries in Europe surveyed in the 2006 European Social Survey ( ESS).
  • Scotland is one of 9 countries in Europe to have a mean 'life satisfaction' score of 8, and one of 13 countries in Europe to have an average 'happiness' score of 8.
  • Scotland had a mean life satisfaction score of 8.1 compared with 7.2 for the rest of the UK. This does not appear to support Bell & Blanchflower's (2007) conclusion that people in Scotland are less satisfied and happy than those living elsewhere in the UK.