Media Briefings

Dissatisfied With Life But Having A Good Day’: New Evidence On Life Satisfaction

  • Published Date: September 2010

People who are unemployed are generally less satisfied with their lives than people in work, but their day-to-day emotional wellbeing is the same. That is the apparent paradox found in new research by Andreas Knabe and colleagues, published in the September 2010 Economic Journal.

The surprising result seems to arise from unemployed people feeling a general lack of life purpose but nevertheless using their time in a way that gives them higher levels of emotional wellbeing than being at work.

Whether people are currently in a job or not, they almost all report being happiest during leisure time. The employed, however, are least happy when at work or commuting to and from work. Since the unemployed can spend that time on leisure, their unemployment hurts much less emotionally than previously thought.

A common result from psychology is that unemployment causes unhappiness. This research brings this result into question. More than 600 employed and unemployed people in Germany were interviewed about their life circumstances, their life satisfaction and their emotional wellbeing.

In line with previous research findings, the study shows that unemployed people are less satisfied than the employed with their life in general. But when it comes to their emotions experienced on a specific day, the unemployed have the same average level of positive and negative emotions as the employed. As the title of this study puts it, the unemployed are ‘dissatisfied with life, but having a good day’.

This is the first study to compare the emotional wellbeing of employed and unemployed people using the ‘day reconstruction method’, developed by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman.

This method combines a time-use survey with the empirical measurement of people’s happiness. Respondents were personally interviewed and asked to construct a diary of the previous day consisting of all activities they engaged in and to report what feelings they experienced during each of these activities.

The answers turned out to be very similar across respondents (see Table 1). Almost all said that they felt happiest during leisure time. Meeting friends, pursuing a hobby or reading a book are activities that people really seem to enjoy.

In contrast, time spent at work or commuting to and from work was placed at the bottom end of the emotional scale. During work hours, people report being stressed and annoyed more often than during any of their leisure activities.

The surprising result that employed and unemployed persons have about the same level of average emotional wellbeing is caused by two opposing forces:

First, there is a ‘saddening effect’: comparing the two groups during their leisure activities, the unemployed experience less positive and more negative emotions than the employed. Apparent reasons for this finding are that leisure is more valuable and enjoyable if you have less of it or if you have the feeling that you ‘earned it’ by spending time at work.
Second, a ‘time-composition effect’ arises because the employed and the unemployed differ in how they spend their time. The unemployed are able to compensate the wellbeing gap from the time spent in leisure activities by using the time during which the employed have to work for more enjoyable activities.

The apparent paradox that people are unhappy because they are unemployed but happy to spend their time in other ways than working might be explained by differences in the two concepts of wellbeing:

Life satisfaction is a cognitive, judgmental construct of happiness. Without a job, people feel that their life lacks purpose and meaning, which causes them to be less satisfied with their life in general or that they feel unsatisfied because they do not meet the social norm of being in employment.
People’s emotional wellbeing seems to be much less affected by such considerations. Hence, unemployed people do not adjust their aspirations but are able to adapt to their unfortunate fate in their everyday life by using their time in a way that yields higher levels of emotional wellbeing than being at work.


Notes for editors: ‘Dissatisfied with Life, but Having a Good Day: Time-use and Well-being of the Unemployed’ by Andreas Knabe, Steffen Rätzel, Ronnie Schöb and Joachim Weimann is published in the September 2010 issue of the Economic Journal.

Andreas Knabe and Ronnie Schöb are at the Freie Universität Berlin. Steffen Rätzel and Joachim Weimann are at the Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg.

For further information: contact Andreas Knabe on +49-30-838-51241 (email:; or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: