A.E. Kunst, P.T. Okma-Keulen, R. Veenhoven
Paper prepared for presentation to the WG 06, Session 8: Quality of life in transnational comparisons (II) at the XIII World Congress of Sociology Bielefeld, Germany, July 18-23, 1994.
Background: The livability of countries is often measured by the life expectancy of its citizens. At high levels, however, life expectancy might lose its usefulness as an indicator of livability, because a further increase of length of life might be attained at the price of more health problems and lower well-being at old age. Composite measures such as 'healthy life expectancy' have been used to assess whether gains in life expectancies are offset by decreasing levels of health. This paper explores the analogous concept of 'happy life expectancy'.
Data and methods: Data on the prevalence of happiness by age and sex were extracted from two international surveys: the Eurobarometer survey (with data on life satisfaction) and the European Value Study (with data on the ABS). Life tables and life satisfaction data were combined in order to calculate the happy life expectancy of men and women in five countries: Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, France, and Greece.
Results: There is no generalised decline in life satisfaction at (very) old age. A small decline was observed only in the countries with the highest life expectancies. In all these countries, that age-related decline in life satisfaction was larger for women (who live longer) than for men. Despite the lesser life satisfaction of old women, women do not only live longer than men, but they can also expect to live much more years in happiness. This applies to both the entire adult life (life after the 15th birthday) and to old age (life after the 65th birthday).
No relationship between total and happy life expectancy was observed when comparing the five countries. Greek and French people have high life expectancies, but they live the smallest number of years in happiness. This is not due to a particular old age effect, but to low overall (all age) levels of life satisfaction.
Conclusion: Life at old age is not as gloomy as indicators of physical health suggest. The experience of women suggest that adding years to old age is likely to increase the number of years of life spent in happiness.