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We Are Unsatisfied Most of the Time

Edwin M. Truman (Former PIIE) and Jan Zilinsky (PIIE)



Pew Research public opinion surveys from 2007 to 2014 reveal that a majority of citizens in most countries are generally unsatisfied with the way things are going most of the time.1

About 30 percent of respondents in 48 countries reported being satisfied on average over the 8-year period (figure 1). Only in 12 percent of the countries on average in any year was the level of satisfaction 50 percent or more.2 On both metrics, a relatively high degree of satisfaction was recorded in 2008, before the outbreak of the global recession and financial crisis.3 Satisfaction levels dipped in 2009 but apparently have regained their precrisis averages in the past two years.

Figure 1

For a smaller subset of 24 countries with at least four surveys in the 8-year period, the pattern is slightly less positive (figure 2). The average degree of satisfaction for this group has been just under 30 percent. In a "typical" year, approximately one in ten countries registered satisfaction rates of 50 percent or more, and the business cycle is more visible in the data.

Figure 2

  Table 1 Average satisfaction rate, 2007–14  
  Germany 45  
  Jordan 45  
  Brazil 43  
  Russia 40  
  Egypt 40  
  Turkey 39  
  Israel 34  
  Indonesia 34  
  Poland 31  
  Britain 30  
  United States 29  
  Kenya 28  
  Mexico 27  
  Japan 25  
  Argentina 25  
  France 25  
  Spain 23  
  Czech Republic 20  
  Pakistan 18  
  South Korea 18  
  Italy 13  
  Palestine Territories 11  
  Ukraine 10  
  Lebanon 10  
  Average 28  
  Sources: Pew Research Center and authors' calculations.  

None of the countries in the 24-country subsample recorded average satisfaction rates of 50 percent or more over the entire 8-year period (table 1). Eight countries, or a third of the total, have some observations at the 50 percent level or better: Germany (three recent observations), followed by Jordan (two early observations), Brazil (two observations in 2010 and 2011 but a sharp dip in satisfaction in 2014), and Egypt (two observations in 2011 and 2012). Spain recorded satisfaction at a 50 percent rate or more in 2007 and 2008, but in 2013 and 2014 the rate was in the single digits, and the average over eight years was only 23 percent. The three other countries that recorded satisfaction rates of 50 percent or more in individual years were Poland (2010), Turkey (2013 but not 2014), and Russia (in 2008 and again in 2014).4

Among the other 24 countries with three or fewer surveys, seven (about another third) recorded satisfaction rates of 50 percent or more in one or more years. In each of them, the average of those surveys exceeded 50 percent: China (86 percent on average in 2013 and 2014, the only years when national surveys were conducted), Vietnam (86 in its only reading in 2014), Malaysia (78 percent on average for surveys in 2007, 2013, and 2014), Australia (55 percent on average by virtue of a recording of 61 percent in 2008), Bangladesh (its only reading was 54 percent in 2014), Canada (averaging 51 percent and above 50 percent in two of the three years in which there were surveys), and Nicaragua (at just 50 percent in 2014).

What about the United States? George Gao from Pew Research points out that American respondents stand out from other advanced economies because they are significantly more likely to say they were "having a particularly good day." According to this Pew survey, 41 percent characterized their day as "particularly good" in contrast with only 21 percent in Germany, 27 percent in the United Kingdom, and 8 percent in Japan. It would appear, though, that US optimism about a particular day does not translate into a favorable view of the direction of the way things are going in the United States in general. Over the past eight years, satisfaction with the way things were going in the United States has averaged 29 percent, short of the 45 percent in Germany, the 30 percent in the United Kingdom, and close to the 25 percent in Japan. Apparently, attitudes toward personal circumstances do not translate directly into attitudes about the direction one's own country may be taking.

In summary, although on average most people in most countries say they are unsatisfied with the way things are going in their countries most of the time, not all countries fit this generalization at all times. In individual countries, responses are affected by culture and circumstances. Macroeconomic conditions are only one of many factors that influence such satisfaction levels.


1. The data for this posting are from the Pew Research Center and responses to its question "Overall, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in our country today?" See (accessed March 16, 2015).

2. For this calculation, we deleted the responses of those who answered that they did not know or would not respond.

3. Many of the surveys were conducted in the spring of the year of the survey.

4, See Simeon Djankov's recent post for a discussion of the Russian case. He reports that surveys of happiness in Russia show an improvement from 41 percent in December 2013 to 44 percent in December 2014, and a somewhat surprising 52 percent earlier this year. In contrast, the Pew survey of satisfaction, which asks the different question of satisfaction with the direction the country is heading in, rose from 37 percent in the spring of 2013 to 56 percent in the spring of 2014.

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