“Americans’ Satisfaction With Their Personal Lives and the Direction of the U.S.”

Megan Brenan reports from Gallup News:

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and record-high inflation, Americans’ satisfaction with the direction of the country has fallen to 17%, the lowest in a year. At the same time, Americans’ satisfaction with their own lives has ticked up to 85%, just five points shy of the 2020 record-high point.

Lots more at the link. People who attend religious services, richer people, and better educated people are all more likely to be satisfied with their lives.

Regarding satisfaction with the direction of the country, we see the usual partisan pattern:

I don’t know why they only show these data since 2020. I’d like to see the plot going back to 1980, just as in the graph at the top of this post.

Yair showed me the top plot and noticed how the different time series seemed to track each other.

First, he de-trended each series by taking the residuals of each from a simple linear regression over time. After subtracting off the overall time trends, there’s a strong correlation of 0.6 between personal satisfaction and satisfaction with the way the country is going:

A correlation of 0.6 might not sound like much, but it’s pretty impressive given that these are averages of noisy survey responses.

Yair then standardized each de-trended series by dividing by its standard deviation, and he plotted them both on the same graph:

Wow—that’s pretty striking! As Yair says, the biggest pattern does not seem to be in the year-to-year variation but rather in decades:

– From 1980-1991 there was a general upswing in both series.

– Then a reset in 1992 and another gradual increase until about 2002.

– Then a steady decline until 2010 or 2012.

– Then a steady rise until 2020.

– Then a drop and a rise since then.

Yair writes:

Not sure how “important” this is, just an interesting little data story. First glance = the two series don’t look related and imply a certain story: that the public’s views on politics are pessimistic and not related to personal satisfaction. Second look = more nuanced: personal satisfaction going up over time (slightly) and USA satisfaction going down, but after accounting for that, the two do seem to be related.

My mental model now is one where people (in the US) are more or less conditioned to say, “things are good” when asked this question, so it inherently has less signal than the question about USA satisfaction. But I don’t know that literature at all.

I’m not sure either!

A research project for you

I think that in any serious analysis of these time series would want to break both responses down by party identification. It should be possible to get these raw data from old polls, so this could be a good research project.

It is striking to me that the time variation in personal satisfaction is so low and yet it tracks satisfaction with the country so well.

I’d also like to compare to time series of business cycle and consumer confidence.

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12 thoughts on ““Americans’ Satisfaction With Their Personal Lives and the Direction of the U.S.”

  1. The thing I hate about these plots is that we see a line – one data point per year – that represents how many survey responses? Can we see the spread please? I know: it’s old school but I want to see *all* the data not just the aggregation. If you add the spread to the detrended correlation, do you have anything? I’m *really* not impressed by the 0.6 correlation. I know that’s a lot for social sciences – it suggests why they’ve had a limited contribution to overall knowledge.

    I’d prefer to see these data compared with something more sound than consumer confidence – like how ’bout GDP growth or unemployment? Business cycles and consumer confidence are presumably derivative of GDP or employment, so why not get to the bottom of things rather than plug a bad proxy in between? OK, even GDP is pretty fuzzy. What about something even more sound like total personal tax receipts or reported gross income?

    With the exception of the early 2000s recession, which strangely corresponds with a peak in sentiment, most of the troughs are associated with recessions. It’s not surprising that individual sentiment would be muted compared to “country direction” since relatively few people lose their jobs in a recession but the doom and gloom is all over the news. Of course, ad-hoc explanations are a dime a dozen I’m sure I could come up with ten different ones that explain most of the “data” in a week or so.

    Someone should check just in case: do these data correlate with shark attacks?

    • Anon:

      Yes, in the above post I said I’d also like to compare to time series of business cycles. You can feel free to do this yourself—lots of these data are freely available on the internet! Basically you’re asking me to do some work, which is fine—but if it’s that important to you, you can feel free to do it yourself. You can also look at shark attacks too if you’d like. Go for it; nobody’s stopping you!

    • > Someone should check just in case: do these data correlate with shark attacks?

      My guess is that shark attacks just mediate the relationship with the actual causal variable – # of pirates. (Obviously, shark attacks affect the # of pirates but it’s the # of pirates that really explains the underlying causal mechanism).

      • Joshua said:

        “shark attacks just mediate the relationship with the actual causal variable – # of pirates.”

        Yes, agreed. n(pirates) is correlated with shark attacks and therefore people’s sense of safety, consumer confidence and ultimately their idea of how well life is going. But here’s the ultimate connection to the economy: It’s heave ho hi ho we’re coming down the plains, stealin’ wheat and barley and all the other grains, and it’s ho hey hi hey farmers guard your stores when you see the Jolly Roger on Regina’s might shores.

  2. It’s interesting that there’s an upward trend in satisfaction with one’s own life–a lot of media and academic coverage suggests that it has declined (rising inequality, declining social capital, etc.). The negative public mood in the early 1990s is also striking–I’ve seen it with other things, like satisfaction with government. You’d think people would have been feeling pretty good about things, given the end of the cold war and decent economic conditions.

  3. Haven’t there been a lot of “deaths of despair” in the past 10-15 years? I wonder how that can be reconciled with the relatively flat (and high) personal life satisfaction. Response bias? People not being honest with the survey? Or is the number of “despairing” people not large enough to register on a survey of the whole population?

  4. A question about “the way things are going” sounds intrinsically ambiguous to me. What if you believe the state of affairs at the present moment is bad, but the situation is improving? Should you say you’re satisfied with “the way things are going,” or not?

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