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Exploring Americans’ Satisfaction With Their Personal Lives

Americans are less satisfied with the way things are going in their personal lives than they were at this time last year, as my colleague Megan Brenan recently reviewed. The percentage of Americans who are personally satisfied is 78%, compared with 83% in 2023. This year’s reading is not an all-time low, but as Megan noted, “The combined 78% of U.S. adults who are now satisfied (very or somewhat) with their lives is well below the trend average of 84% since 1979 and is also the lowest since 2011.”

Even with this year’s drop, personal satisfaction remains quite high compared with the percentage of Americans who are satisfied with the way things are going in the U.S. In an interesting coincidence, the two ratings — personal and national — are exact mirror images this year. The 78% of Americans who are personally satisfied is a flip of the 78% of Americans who are dissatisfied with things nationally. And the 20% of Americans who are satisfied nationally is the flip of the 20% who are dissatisfied personally.

This type of national-local gap is not unusual. Pollsters have long observed that Americans are much more positive when asked about what is happening in their personal lives than when asked about things across the country. Examples of this “local positivity bias” include more positive attitudes about their children’s schools than schools across the country, less concern about local crime than crime across the country, better reviews of their personal healthcare situation than healthcare in general across the country, and more positive attitudes about higher job ratings for their local member of Congress than for Congress in general.

I wrote an analysis of this phenomenon more than 20 years ago and discussed several possible explanations. Chief among them is that most of us have little experiential knowledge of what is happening “out there” nationally. We rely on news reports which, by their very nature, focus on bad news — what’s going wrong. It’s no surprise, then, that people are more negative when asked about the national situation than when asked about what they see with their own eyes around them.

Another explanation for the local-national gap is politics. Americans’ satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S. is significantly correlated to their partisan identity. If personal partisan identity matches the party in the White House, satisfaction is quite high. If they don’t match, satisfaction is quite low. Americans, in short, perceive their national satisfaction as, at least in part, a reflection of the sitting president’s party. This fact of life — that a significant minority of the population will always be dissatisfied — in essence, puts a ceiling on the overall level of national satisfaction.

We don’t see this type of systematic partisan gap in our measure of personal satisfaction. Gallup’s January update shows the partisan gap in personal satisfaction is just five percentage points — 81% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents are personally satisfied, compared with 76% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. By contrast, the national satisfaction gap is 25 points — 32% of Democrats/lean Democrat are satisfied with the way things are going in the U.S., compared with 7% of Republicans/lean Republican.

The fact that Democrats are slightly more personally satisfied than Republicans this year seems to, at first, fit the pattern observed with U.S. satisfaction — given that there is a Democrat in the White House. But there was a modest Republican advantage in personal satisfaction last year. Republican satisfaction with their personal lives dropped by nine points this year. Democrats fell by only one point. This Republican drop, then, accounted for a good deal of this year’s overall downtick. And there was no change in the presidential administration.

Even when there is a change in administrations, we don’t see the big shifts in personal satisfaction that we do in national satisfaction. Republicans have typically been slightly more positive than Democrats about their personal lives, even with Biden and Obama in the White House. This year marks the only time over the last nine years when this question has been asked in Gallup’s January Mood of the Nation surveys when Democrats have been more personally positive.

We don’t know what negatively affected Republicans this year. It could be Republicans’ increased concern about the effect of immigration or inflation on their lives. Both of these issues are mentioned more frequently by Republicans than Democrats as the most important problem facing the nation in Gallup’s January update. Or it could be an outgrowth of the ramped-up presidential campaign, during which Republican candidates repeatedly highlight what they say is going wrong in people’s lives under the current Democratic administration. But if politics is the cause, it would be an anomaly of sorts, given the usual stability in the two partisan groups’ personal satisfaction.

Americans’ Personal Satisfaction Is Relatively Stable in Comparison to Other Measures

Despite modest ups and downs, Americans’ personal satisfaction is relatively stable, at least in comparison to the significant fluctuation in national satisfaction. The range of personal satisfaction over the 62 times Gallup has measured it since 1979 is 17 points — from a low of 73% in July 1979 to a high of 90% in January 2020. Before this year, personal satisfaction had been below 80% only 14 times (out of the 62 measures), seven of which came between 1979 and 1984. By contrast, the range of U.S. satisfaction is 64 points — from a high of 71% in February 1999 to a low of 7% in October 2008.


We might suppose that the news topics affecting national satisfaction — the great recession, COVID-19, etc. — would percolate down to the personal level. But they don’t appear to do so in a way that affects how Americans gauge satisfaction with their personal lives.

Despite this year’s downtick, the fairly high percentage of Americans who remain satisfied with their personal lives is good news. Americans appear quite resilient. The significant majority of Americans appear to be navigating through life in what they define as a satisfactory way — despite what is swirling around them.

Combining the Two Satisfaction Measures

I looked at the combination of the two satisfaction measures — national and personal. This classifies Americans into four groups: Those satisfied with both, dissatisfied with both, satisfied with personal but not U.S., and satisfied with U.S. but not personal.

As we would expect given the levels of overall satisfaction — national (low) and personal (high) — about two-thirds of Americans are in the satisfied with their personal lives but dissatisfied with the way things are going in the U.S. group. Sixteen percent are happy campers, satisfied with the way things are going both nationally and locally, while 15% are disgruntles, dissatisfied with both. Almost no one is satisfied with the way things are going in the U.S. but dissatisfied with their personal life. Democrats, and to a lesser degree independents, are more represented in the “satisfied with both” group than Republicans, although this still represents just 22% of Democrats and 15% of independents. Republicans are mostly in the “satisfied personally, dissatisfied nationally” group (75%).


Socioeconomic, Marital and Religious Status Correlate With Personal Satisfaction

Megan Brenan’s recent analysis showed that being very satisfied personally is significantly correlated with socioeconomic status (income and education), marital status and religiousness.

I continued her analysis by looking at overall personal satisfaction levels (adding together very and somewhat satisfied) in a combined aggregate of Gallup’s last four years of data from 2021 to 2024. The same patterns persist: Americans who have higher socioeconomic status, who are married and who attend church frequently have higher personal satisfaction than others. These differences between groups are not huge, given the high levels of personal satisfaction overall, but they are significant.

The impact of socioeconomic status on personal satisfaction is not greatly surprising. Our common sense, and much previous research, shows that people with higher incomes are more satisfied and have higher wellbeing than those with lower incomes. Because education is significantly correlated with income, that relationship too is not surprising. Money may not be everything, but it certainly is significant enough to positively affect our perceptions of how our lives are going.

The correlation between marriage and personal satisfaction is also not a newly discovered phenomenon. I discussed this in a recent analysis of national trends in confidence and moral values. It fits with much available evidence. As the title of a newly published book by University of Virginia professor Brad Wilcox exhorts readers, dramatically, Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization. Wilcox contends that “Nothing predicts happiness better than a good marriage.” Gallup economist Jonathan Rothwell has reached much the same conclusion in his recently published analysis of marriage and wellbeing.

Being married is, in turn, related to personal religiousness. Thus, it is not surprising to find the relationship between religiosity and personal satisfaction. A great deal of Gallup and other research supports this finding.

Causation is always difficult to determine precisely. It may be that people who are already personally satisfied are more likely to become financially comfortable, get married and be religious. But a perhaps facile recommendation from these data, I think, might be for young people to achieve financial success, get married and get religious if they want to increase satisfaction with the way their lives are going.

Bottom Line

Americans’ satisfaction with the way things are going in their personal lives is down modestly this year from last year’s reading and is below Gallup’s historical average. This downtick parallels a similar modest downturn in Gallup’s measure of wellbeing, as recently reported by Gallup’s Dan Witters and Kayley Bayne.

The causes of the downtick in Gallup’s measure of personal satisfaction are not easily discernible. Republican satisfaction fell this year compared with 2023, and Democrats’ satisfaction remains somewhat lower than it has been over the previous decade. It isn’t clear from the historical record if personal satisfaction is related to incumbent president re-election, but it is something to watch.

Still,  with many of our social, economic and political indicators in such negative territory today, including the finding that almost eight in 10 Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going nationally, it is good news that the same percentage of Americans report being satisfied with the way things are going in their personal lives, as has been the case for the most part for over 40 years.