David SpencerData on life satisfaction can be misleading and potentially dangerous if wrongly interpreted, argues David Spencer. We should instead be asking deeper questions about the quality of our lives that conventional survey questions cannot fully grasp. Importantly, life satisfaction surveys are subject to bias given how norms and expectations as well as aspirations impact on peoples’ perceptions of the quality of their lives.

How happy are you in your job? Very happy or very unhappy? New data suggests that the happiest workers in the UK occupy jobs in the clergy. The next happiest workers are CEOs, and “managers and proprietors in agriculture and horticulture”. The unhappiest workers are debt collectors, elementary construction workers and publicans. It would seem that, from the perspective of raising average life satisfaction, the UK would be better off if it had more vicars and fewer pub landlords. Perhaps we should worry less about the decline in the number of pubs and instead hope – or pray – for an increase in church congregations.

Job satisfaction survey

Source: ONS, BBC

But there are some serious issues with life satisfaction data. Without doubt these data can be useful. But they can also be misleading and potentially dangerous if interpreted in the wrong way. The point is that we need to ask deeper questions about the quality of our lives that conventional survey questions cannot fully grasp. This point applies in particular to the use of life satisfaction data as a putative measure of the quality of jobs.

More money, fewer problems

In some senses, the results are about what we would expect. Those in better paid jobs generally tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction – while money may have its limits in buying happiness, it is certainly better in welfare terms to have a well-paid job than one that still leaves you poor. The results also suggest the importance of the intrinsic rewards of work. CEOs, for example, benefit not just from high pay but also from being their own bosses. By contrast, workers in jobs with a low degree of autonomy such as telesales report low life satisfaction. There also seems to be a boost to well-being from working outdoors – farmers rank as the eighth most satisfied occupational group.

The result for members of the clergy – that vicars and priests tend to report high life satisfaction – can be explained by the fact that they do work for reasons other than money and in the act of working they gain high intrinsic rewards that compensate them for lower wages. Work, in the case of the clergy, is more a “calling” than a means to affluence. But there are also some anomalies. Company secretaries are relatively lowly paid but report high life satisfaction. Can we say that these workers gain high non-monetary rewards in work that more than compensate them for their below average pay?

However, they are unlikely to report such satisfaction based solely on their income and the nature of the job. One other important factor may be the lower norms of the mostly female workers employed as company secretaries. They don’t expect to be their own bosses, to work for a “higher calling” or to earn millions, and their norms will be set accordingly. If we factor in their lower norms, company secretaries need not be seen as so joyous.

The point to stress is that life satisfaction data are subject to bias. Two workers doing the same job may rate their life satisfaction differently owing to differences in the norms they hold. The same argument applies for differences in expectations and aspirations about life and work. The company secretary who does not expect to progress in the organisation in which she works need not feel dissatisfied with her life if she has few opportunities to climb the career ladder. Low aspirations can lead to an acceptance of limited opportunities which in turn may inflate reported life satisfaction. Of course, this same argument works the other way round too. A high flying CEO would be unlikely to maintain his or her life satisfaction if asked to trade places with his or her secretary, even if the two occupations maintain a similarly high level of life satisfaction.

Signals and noise

Given how norms and expectations as well as aspirations impact on peoples’ perceptions of the quality of their lives, then data on life satisfaction becomes a very noisy signal of wellbeing. The immediate danger is that we see company secretaries and CEOs as leading similarly happy lives when in reality the gulf in wellbeing between the two groups is huge. Following the same argument, the low reported life satisfaction of those in poorly paid jobs may actually underestimate the hardships they face in their lives inside and outside work. For similar reasons, job satisfaction data is likely to be just as unreliable as an indicator of job quality.

Critics of subjective wellbeing data such as Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen have long argued that wellbeing should be understood in more objective terms. We should be assessing the quality of occupations like company secretary and CEO based on what the jobs themselves enable people to be and do in their lives, not on subjective assessments of life satisfaction.

If, as reported, the Cabinet Office is working on a web-based calculator that will allow people to make better career choices, it would be better advised to devote resources to compiling data on the different qualitative features of jobs. Certainly, this would be better than relying on the blunt instrument of a one-shot question about life satisfaction, which may hide more than it reveals about the quality of jobs.

Note:  A version of this article was originally published on The Conversation and it gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

About the Author

David SpencerDavid Spencer is Professor of Economics and Political Economy at the Leeds University Business School.

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