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Saturday, July 30, 2022

The global belief that "life gets better and better"

Busseri M. A. (2022).
Journal of personality and social 
psychology, 123(1), 223–247.


National-level differences in individuals' ratings of their recollected past, current, and anticipated future life satisfaction (LS) were examined using results from two pioneering projects comprising national-level results for 14 countries (Cantril, 1965) and 15 regions of the world (Gallup International Research Institutes & Charles F. Kettering Foundation, 1976; Study 1), as well as sequential results from the Gallup World Poll based on 137 countries representing a broad range of nations from around the world surveyed from 2005 to 2018 (Study 2). Results from both studies revealed a robust belief that "life gets better" over time (i.e., recollected past < current < anticipated future LS) in nations around the world. Such beliefs were examined in relation to objective and subjective indicators of societal-level functioning. Results replicated across studies in showing that nations with less positive societal functioning and prosperity were characterized by less recollected past improvements in LS, and yet greater anticipated future improvements in LS. Results from Study 2 also revealed that such expectations were positively biased compared to changes over time in national levels of LS; further, greater bias was related to less positive societal-level functioning. In conclusion, examining national-level differences in LS from a subjective temporal perspective provides valuable new insights concerning human development and prosperity across countries, over time, and around the world. 

From the General Discussion

Together, such findings suggest that the belief that life gets increasingly satisfying over time, particularly into the future, is nearly universal at a national level. What might explain the widespread (but typically erroneous) conviction that life becomes increasingly satisfying over time? This belief may be a reflection,
in part, of the positive historical trajectory of human development and economic prosperity found around the world. Indeed, as suggested by the historical trends observed both in Study 1 across a 10-year period during the 1960s and 1970s, and in Study 2 across a 13-year period between 2005 and 2018, objective indicators of human development and socioeconomic prosperity generally increased consistently over time. The inclining subjective LS trajectories observed in nations around the world may thus reflect widespread awareness of such global improvements in societal functioning. Critically, however, in Study 2 very high levels of stability were found for each of the indicators of societal functioning and a high preponderance of variance in such indicators was observed between nations, rather than within countries over time.

Further, despite the general trend toward improvements in societal level functioning over time, many nations were not characterized by statistically reliable changes (decreases or increases) across the three
periods examined. Also noteworthy, results concerning unique associations between national-level differences in the subjective LS trajectories and societal-level functioning were inconsistent across periods and functioning indicators. Thus, it appears that the widespread belief that LS gets better and better is not merely a reflection of how life generally changes over time.