Happiness versus Life Satisfaction: What’s the Difference?

A month ago, the economist Richard Easterlin published an op-ed in the New York Times where he drew upon his work analyzing surveys to argue that increasing economic growth does not boost reported happiness. China is one of his best examples.

I admire Easterlin’s long-standing work and I like his argument. The idea that money doesn’t always bring good things is old and validated. Jesus did say that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God—a shockingly strong statement, particularly in light of the fact that most Americans are among the richest 5% of people in the world. (It only takes $34,000 per person to be amid the richest 1% of people in the world.)

It’s just that this work, along with a lot of other research on happiness, is not really about happiness. A great deal of the data he drew upon asks, actually, about “life satisfaction”—something quite different. Being satisfied connotes being content, sufficient and adequate, of being acceptable, of being good enough. This is not the same as happiness, which is a positive feeling or state of well-being.

If had you asked me when I was twenty-two years old to rate my life satisfaction, I’d probably have said 8 out of 10 because I had met certain standards for myself. I had graduated from college, was healthy, and had friends and family. But there were still some things I wanted out of life: I was looking for a job and starting a career. So, I would have thought, “Well, I’m not a 10, but I’m not a 0. Maybe 8?”

If you asked me the same question yesterday, I might give you exactly the same number for the same reason: I am largely content, but I still have more I want to do. However, I have had a recent infusion of joy into my life: I had a baby boy three months ago, and his coos, gurgles, and smiles fill me with delight all day long. Do I have more joy? Yes. Am I happier? Yes.

The difference is that being satisfied with life is more about meeting an expectation, being content, and being generally ok with life (there is a standard and we can be closer or further from meeting it), whereas, in theory, there are no upper limits to happiness. There may be happiness that we cannot even imagine.

Can we say, then, that life satisfaction is more like taking an exam (where 100% is the highest you could get), whereas happiness should be scored more like an essay (upon which there are no constraints in how excellent, thoughtful, or thought-provoking it could be)?

Or, maybe we can say that asking whether you’re satisfied with life is like asking whether you finished your scoop of ice cream, whereas asking about happiness is more like asking how your scoop of ice cream tasted. There are no bounds on how delicious ice cream could be.

It’s worth thinking about. What are our standards? What would make us satisfied with lives? What, on the other hand, are the possibilities for happiness and joy in our lives?

New Questions About Asian American Buddhists

Since 1965, the Buddhist population has grown considerably as a result of increased immigration from Asia. Buddhism is not new to the US since many of the early immigrants, largely Japanese and Chinese immigrants brought their Buddhist faith with them. But as a result of racist policies that tinged with some Christian nationalism (e.g “America is Christian not religiously pluralist”) the number of Buddhist Americans never grew at the normal rate like other groups. Since most Asian Americans today are immigrants, and since a large proportion of them are not proficient in English (especially in answering a phone survey) most surveys since 1965 have no accurate recording of the Buddhist population. The new Pew Report on Asian American religions helps bring some of our current understanding of Buddhist religion in perspective. As the report points out, 14% of Asian Americans in the survey currently identify as Buddhist. If the Asian American population is roughly 17 million, that’s nearly 2.4 million Asian Americans. If we add the white Buddhist population (using the Religious Landscape Survey from 2007), that’s an additional 1 million or so (there are smaller numbers of non-white and non-Asian American Buddhists, but even when we combine their figures it would not add up to even half of the white Buddhist constituency). So Asian Americans form the largest fraction of American Buddhists today (about 60% if there are nearly 4 million Buddhists). Note how this differs from the original figures presented in the 2007 Landscape survey which was only administered in English. White Buddhists now make up about 25 to 30% of the American Buddhist population, not 53%.

Within Asian America does any one particular nationality or ethnic group dominate the Buddhist population? Appendix 2 of the report shows some of the religious distributions of the major six nationalities that comprise about 83% of Asian Americans today: Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese. Given that migration patterns have changed, I wondered whether the proportions of the Buddhist population were coming from the same places where this faith tradition is more popular. Pulling the numbers from different sections of the report I came up with the following:

Asian American Buddhists Compared to Country of Origin – Pew Asian American Survey 2012
Nationality% Buddhist% Buddhist in US Asian groupsApproximate %Difference
People’s Republic of China15150
South Korea206-14

(Note: the * refers to the catch-all “Other religions” for the Filipino figures. Buddhists were not separated out). Interestingly, Chinese, Indian, and Filipino proportions are roughly in the same range in the US as it is in their home countries. However in the three countries where the percentage of Buddhists is 20% or greater (Vietnam, Japan, Korea), we find that those rates are not sustained in the US ranging roughly around 12 to 16% lower. Notably too, only Vietnamese Buddhists come close enough to nearly 50% of the Buddhist American population. Think about it, there are more white American Buddhists than any one nationality of Buddhists among Asian Americans even though they are proportionally much smaller among whites than among Asian Americans.

That said, we might wonder why there is a lower proportion of Buddhists in the US relative to their expected proportions in the Asian countries from which many of them originate. One explanation is that there is a selective Christian migration from Asia to the US. Whether Buddhism dominates the religious landscape (like in the Vietnamese case) or has a large minority presence (like the Chinese, Japanese and Korean cases), a lower proportion of them are migrating relative to Christians. Indeed another Pew report shows that Christianity tends to be the main religion of the majority of today’s migrants around the world. This is one way of explaining too that the selectivity of Asian immigration today reflects the movement of particular kinds of people rather than a random selection. One of these particularities is religion, where more Christians from Asia tend to immigrate relative to their proportions in these countries.

Another explanation is based on stateside experience: there may also be lower retention among Asian American Buddhists or higher exit. As the report shows while 14% of those Asian Americans surveyed identified as Buddhist, 22% were raised Buddhist. No other religious group (save the unaffiliated category which is the topic of a different blog post) shows this much attrition. Put in two different rates, 54% of those raised Buddhist are currently the same religion but of those who are currently Buddhist, 85% were raised Buddhist. So while a lower proportion remain Buddhist compared to their childhood faith, those that are currently Buddhist largely grew up so. Sociologists describe these fluctuations as religious switching.

So what happens to the 45% of former Buddhists? As the religious retention table shows (p. 52), about 27% now describe themselves as unaffiliated, and another 11% report being Protestant. There’s clearly a lot of movement among those Asian Americans raised in this religious tradition. But in a country that espouses religious freedom and tolerance, why is retention among Buddhists so low? And why are the switches occurring with these two groups?

While there are many explanations for this question, one possibility that jumped out to me was religious assimilation. If assimilation can be described as the process of immigrants fitting into mainstream American society, then religious assimilation is the process of immigrants fitting into the religious mainstream of American society. In our current cultural politics it seems as if there are two dominant “religious parties”, evangelical Protestantism and no religious affiliation. Despite our religious ideals, I wonder if some of the attrition is explained by the minimized presence of Buddhism in the public discussion over the influence of religion in American society which espouses religious tolerance. Judging from media analysis research by Jane Iwamura, it’s clear that Buddhism has a problematic place in the popular imagination of the American public, but is it also subtly marginalized for that very same reason? In other words is Buddhism trivialized by the misrepresentations portrayed in the media as well as the near absence of it in our public discourse over religion? As such, for those who grew up Buddhist, whether in the US or abroad, are more of them inclined to leave their faith tradition (or perhaps privatize it) as a result of being exposed to a culture that either does not take religion seriously or asserts the exclusivist claims of only one faith?

Still another explanation might be tied into ethnic diversity and changes in immigration. Without direct access to the data, I wonder if the aforementioned effects might vary based on the immigration wave in question. For example, Japanese migration to the US has slowed considerably. Therefore more of the Japanese Americans in a sample like this were likely US born and perhaps even third generation Americans or more (recall the internment of World War II). I wonder if Buddhist religious retention is lower for multi-generational Asian American Buddhists compared to those who “just arrived” since the 1970s. This might be evidenced by ethnicity (comparing Japanese with Vietnamese respondents), or if we know the particular generational status of each respondent we could directly test whether this might be the case.

These findings require more investigation and this is where more qualitative research can help us understand how American Buddhists think about their faith and what might these retention figures mean. Want to learn more about American Buddhism? Check out these scholarly works by Wendy Cadge,  Sharon Suh and Carolyn Chen as a start.


Building a Better Asian American Survey

As some readers may know, the 2nd report on religion in Asian America was released. Given the additional time the advisory board (including me and over a dozen professors who do Asian American research) was given to send in comments and the notable changes incorporated into the final product, many of us feel a little better about this report than the first one. In this post I want to share the challenges of understanding religious prevalence in a hard-to-reach group. In the limited history of Asian American data collection (of the national-level variety), compromises are often made in one of two ways: obtain a stratified and fairly random sample in English or translate the survey in the major Asian language groups. Since trying to survey a smaller group that constitutes about 5-6% of the population, both of these factors are important and costly.

The implications of these differences are big when it comes to understanding religion in Asian America. What happens to the proportional distribution of Asian ethnic Christians based on different sampling techniques? (Some have wondered whether one particular ethnic group dominates Asian American Christianity or whether it’s an even spread across all groups).

CAVEAT: To keep matters simple and consistent across three survey examples, I am limiting the discussion to the six largest Asian American groups which have been unchanged since the 1990s: Chinese, Filipino, South Asian Indians, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese in roughly that order). Surveying groups smaller than these (e.g. Bangladeshi, Cambodian, Laotian, Pakistani, Thai plus at least 20 others) will require some innovative survey techniques or way more research money than most scholars can acquire through grants. That said, I humbly show only these top 6 groups knowing that these illustrations miss out on a significant swath of Asian Americans numbering in millions.

The first example is less randomly stratified but language-inclusive:

This snapshot was taken from a paper I wrote that tried to summarize the sociological study of Asian American Christianity. I created a pie graph of the top 6 Asian American groups all of whom described themselves as “Catholic”, “Protestant”, or “Other Christian.” I used the freely available survey, the Pilot National Asian American Politics Survey, 2001. While this survey was translated into 6 languages plus English for respondents to answer the survey was limited to 5 major cities with large Asian American populations (New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Chicago, San Francisco).

If you have used the PNAAPS, you’ll notice that the Christian Asian Indian figure is rather high. That’s because (as I state in the article) identifying some Asian Indians by surname (using marketing lists that try to approximate ethnicity or race based on household names) is really difficult when they are often based on important saints like Thomas, George etc. So I did some extrapolations based on other scholars who also gave best estimates and I came up with that rough number.

Aside from that this survey can basically tell us the proportion of adult Asian American Christians from 5 major cities around the year 2000.

This next one is more random and stratified but only done in English:

In 2007 the Pew Research Center released the Religious Landscape Survey, a massive survey of over 35,000 respondents. After appropriate weighting measures (basically adjusting the sample to approximate the population), this survey yielded about 800 Asian American respondents who gave detailed information. If survey respondents were not born in the US or if their parents were not born in the US, they were asked a follow up question of national origin. About a hundred or so only said they were Asian and did not submit any other identifying information and had no foreign-born ties of any sort. So this basically melds together any Asian American who was born in the US as a generic “Asian.” The other major problem with this survey is that it was only translated into Spanish. So that means Asian Americans (most of whom are foreign-born) were called in English to answer a complex survey. You can be sure that those who were not comfortable with their English proficiency didn’t continue the survey.

This chart tells us the prevalence of English-proficient adult Asian American Christians who were foreign-born or had foreign-born parents around 2007.

A social scientist is trained to report findings based on the parameters of the data. So in the case of the PNAAPS, the verbage for one of the data points would read: “Vietnamese American Christians represented about 9% of all Asian American Christians in 5 major cities with large Asian American populations [in 2001].” The Landscape Survey finding would read: “Vietnamese Americans who are English-proficient represented about 5% of all English-proficient Asian American Christians in the United States [in 2007].” That’s a lot of hedging but it’s faithful to the data.

So we turn now to the new Pew Asian American Religions report. None of the advisory board members have access to the survey so I took the raw figures and punched them in my spreadsheet to get best estimates. This survey is stratified and random and translated into multiple major Asian languages within the largest 6 groups. This is what I found:

Time may be a significant factor here even when we account for methodological problems of the past. It’s possible that the PNAAPS and PRLS figures are close to the mark for their respective years. That said, if we see little fluctuation between surveys it might mean that accounting for language and stratified sampling does not make a big difference for this group; conversely if we do see big fluctuations, it might be a result of either of these two factors or something else like changes in immigration rates.

From personal experience, most of the Korean Christians I know are reluctant to answer a survey over the phone in English (trying to explain a medical condition or a legal issue is no small feat either). So when I see a jump from 17% of Asian American Christians are Korean in an English-only survey to 24%, I start thinking that maybe this survey picked up on those folks who can answer complex questions but in Korean only. The 3% difference between a 5-city survey and the new survey suggests to me that they are somewhat concentrated in certain major metro areas.

These explanations don’t make as much sense when I see the change in Japanese American figures. Since Japan is much less Christian, making a survey available in Japanese (I would think) would lower the proportion of Japanese American Christians (even if there is a pro-migration of Christians from Japan to the US, migration levels are very low in the past decade from Japan). On the other hand, it might be that Japanese American Christians are more dispersed than previous surveys found. The wildly different figures for Filipino American Christians suggests that many more of them (compared to other ethnic groups) are comfortable speaking in English, and to some extent they are likely less spread out (or geographically dispersed) compared to other groups.

Scholars and anyone interested in Asian American diversity have a better survey now and can make stronger statements (depending on the issue) about the prevalence rates in Asian America. To use the previous example about Vietnamese American Christians the new survey allows us to say this: “Vietnamese American Christians took up about 12% of all Asian American Christians [in 2012].” Simpler statements like this are possible when the sample is more rigorously obtained through sensitivity to location and language diversity. It also requires funding agencies to invest a lot for better data.

There’s much more to learn about religion in Asian America so I encourage readers to check it out. Hat tip to Pew for funding a well-executed survey.


Good Data, Confusing News and the Reinforcing of Stereotypes: Reporting on The Pew Asian American Survey Report

Over the past year I have had the privilege to work with the Pew Research Center on developing what I believe is the most rigorous survey sample of Asian Americans. Given the deep pockets that form the financial base of Pew, I had high hopes that this survey would indeed help us pinpoint better what we can know about Asian America. Indeed, this survey, while smaller in sample than the National Asian American Survey 2008 (3,500 compared to over 5,000), improves upon it and its predecessors in sampling methodology and in simply asking a lot more questions of a random sample of Asian Americans.

“Asian American” is a weird term in the sense that it assumes a commonality among Americans of Asian descent when in fact it’s a massive amalgamation of no less than 20 different nationalities. This dual tension of perceived commonality and diversity is a hallmark dilemma in the social sciences, especially when discussing minority groups. How similar are Asian Americans and how diverse are we? A good survey of Asian Americans needs to account for both.

One of the major problems facing Asian Americans today is the proverbial “positive stereotype” called the “model minority myth.” It asserts that Asian Americans are a racial minority group that embodies American ideals of hard work and discipline and the concomitant material rewards of more (and prestigious) education, greater income, desirable jobs, as well as the social reward of receiving praise from the dominant group. This would overemphasize commonality and de-emphasize diversity.

Why is this a problem? Because a closer look at data on Asian Americans reveals that this myth applies only to very select cuts of the Asian American population and yet is applied to all. In a media-saturated environment like ours, such perceptions are amplified and sow seeds that help grow racialized beliefs about Asian Americans. And anyone who grows up in this culture is susceptible to it.

So survey research and the reporting of such research is not necessarily absolutely neutral; it’s possible that unclear reports of survey research can distort the very reality it supposedly portrays. The recent reporting of the new Pew Research Center’s Asian American Survey (2012) is one powerful illustration of how this plays out.

For example, the Pew study rolls out this statistic we see a lot: Asian American household incomes are higher than the national average. In fact it’s not even just higher by $1000-$2000, it’s almost $15,000 higher (see p.29).

screenshot p.29 Pew Asian American survey report

The report notes a couple of important qualifiers with a couple of cites for readers to reference. Based on the largest Asian ethnic groups, 2 are even higher than the Asian American median. The other four are below that median, and in fact Koreans are just $200 on average higher than the national average. Scholars have also stressed a few other pieces to the puzzle over these high figures, and the Pew report mentions these without putting the parts together.  Asian Americans today are largely immigrant (p.24), but specifically “highly-skilled” immigrants. This means these immigrants have more education (p. 25), and possibly more work experience than other immigrants. In fact the Pew report notes that Asian immigrants even differ from their peers in their countries of origin. For example, 27% of adults (ages 25-64 specifically) in South Korea had a bachelor’s degree, whereas 70% of Korean immigrants (in the same age range) had the same. With such high level of education we should not be surprised that we find a larger proportion in management and professional level (i.e. mostly white-collar) occupations (p. 27). These kinds of jobs usually offer better pay and more consistent pay than most other jobs and about half of Asian America are in this sector compared to about 40% for the rest of the country. Later on (p.33), the report mentions that nearly half of Asian America (47%) resides in one region (and most of these very specifically in one state, California). One of the highest cost-of living regions is the West, and California, and Hawaii exceedingly so.

When we stop to put these parts together, Asian American household income appears higher but no other group in the US has the same internal social dynamics like what we see among them. No other group is dominated by high-skilled immigrants, high educational attainment (acquired largely before arrival to the US), more fulltime workers per household in one of the most expensive states to live in. The report does not apply this degree of rigor, but more importantly we see examples like the following in major news outlets:

“The Pew report, titled “The Rise of Asian Americans,” finds that Asians are the highest-income and best-educated racial group in the U.S. Nearly half (49 percent) of Asian-American adults have a college degree, and they boast a median annual household income of $66,000 (versus the U.S. median of $49,800).” (MSNBC.com 6/19)

“Positive stereotypes about Asian Americans are rooted in reality: They are more educated, wealthier and value work, marriage and family more than Americans as a whole, according to a Pew Research report out today.” (USAToday.com 6/18)

The lack of nuance leaves us with the impression that Asian Americans have it pretty good. What’s so bad about a “positive stereotype?” It allows us to dismiss the concerns of the vulnerable among these so-called model minorities.

Advocacy groups took notice and acted fast. Groups like the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (an umbrella organization of over 30 groups) have now expressed concern publicly over these gross generalizations that have not furthered the conversation but instead may contribute to further misunderstanding Asian America.

So even a report based on census data and a a new state-of-the-art survey of an understudied group can still lead to erroneous reporting from mass media outlets that can reinforce myths.

As part of my calling as a social scientist, its important to address stereotypes with data. What’s challenging is dealing with the media patterns that undermine good data such as running stories that minimize complexity as witnessed by the recent reportage of the new Pew report on Asian Americans.

How else might social scientists help media to make appropriate narrations based on survey data?