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Cross-national and historical differences in subjective well-being

23 Apr 2014

Background There is a growing body of population survey data on national subjective well-being which allows comparisons across countries and across periods. Key issues in this work are as follows. Can response to questions on well-being be meaningfully compared across countries and periods? What social conditions are associated with greater well-being both between countries and across periods? Are there lessons for how global well-being might be improved? This review aims to give an overview of this area and its relevance to psychiatric epidemiology.

Methods Systematic searches of the literature were carried out using eight academic databases between August 2012 and January 2013.

Results Subjective well-being involves multiple components, including cognitive evaluation of satisfaction with life and emotional state, and these are separable from mental ill health. Although there are difficulties in measuring subjective well-being in comparable ways cross-culturally, there is sufficient evidence of validity to make comparisons meaningful. The subjective well-being of nations increases with income per capita, but gains are smaller in higher-income countries. Other national factors that affect well-being include income inequality, social welfare, individualism, democracy and freedom, social capital and physical health.

Conclusions Economic growth of lower-income nations will improve global subjective well-being. However, this needs to be sustainable or it will reduce the well-being of future generations. Higher-income nations need to focus on other determinants of well-being. Research on cross-national well-being suggests a number of directions that may be profitably pursued in psychiatric epidemiology.

23 April 2014

Click here to view the full article which appeared in International Journal of Epidemiology