Do Equal Rights for a Minority Affect General Life Satisfaction?


While previous research examines how institutions matter for general life satisfaction and how specific institutions embodying equal rights for gay people matter for the life satisfaction of gays, we combine these two issues to analyze how the latter type of institutions relates to general life satisfaction. The question is how people in general are affected by laws treating everyone equally irrespective of sexual orientation. We find that legal recognition of partnership, marriage and adoption rights, as well as an equal age of consent, relate positively to general life satisfaction. Consequently, same-sex marriage and similar reforms come at no “welfare” cost to society at large—if anything, the opposite appears to hold. We further build on previous research showing positive effects of economic freedom on happiness and on tolerance towards gay people and interact our rights measure with economic freedom. This reveals that the positive effect on general happiness of equal rights mainly appears in countries with low economic freedom. This likely follows because minority rights are perceived to indicate openness to much-desired reforms in other areas.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    We do not mean that actual politics always or even typically strives to increase life satisfaction: as we expand upon in our theory section, political decision-makers may either have other ideological goals than life satisfaction or be self-interested and simply care about what benefits themselves. Still, our operating assumption is the relevance of general life satisfaction as a normative goal.

  2. 2.

    On the spread of sexual freedom more generally, see Alexander et al. (2016).

  3. 3.

    Different persons can be affected differently, so there can be negative, positive and no effects at the same time in a population. What we discuss here and later capture empirically, however, is the average or dominant effect in a country.

  4. 4.

    Note that the number of countries and observations used in different regressions below varies, because of varying data availability for the included variables. While we have life satisfaction data from 97 countries in the form of 296 observations, our control variables are typically available for fewer countries.

  5. 5.

    See Hall and Lawson (2014) for a comprehensive survey.

  6. 6.

    Due to the nature of the data, especially the long intervals between which life satisfaction is measured in the WVS, we cannot use other econometric techniques that directly link legal changes to subsequent changes in life satisfaction. However, one feasible way to investigate this is to apply country fixed effects, which means that all estimates are identified by the within-country changes over time in the variables. We summarize findings from such an exercise in Sect. 4; the full results are available upon request. The problem of moving to such estimators is that it amounts to throwing out all cross-sectional variation, which means that the general results are not comparable to the existing literature on life satisfaction. Due to the persistence of life satisfaction over time—changes typically happen very slowly—a random effects estimator, that we use in the paper, is also much more likely to capture the true long-run effects than any procedure relying on either individual time series or panel estimates with fixed effects.

  7. 7.

    An alternative way to do the interactions would be to use the continuous measure of economic freedom rather than apply a median split. However, there is one drawback to this, namely, that one thereby imposes an assumption of linear heterogeneity on the data. This can lead to false positives if the true interactive relation is non-linear, which seems to be the case. Nevertheless, when analysing the continuous interaction relation for recognition rights and economic freedom, it indicates that the point estimate for how recognition rights relates to life satisfaction is decreasing in economic freedom and that the effect evaporates around the median. This level—a level of economic freedom of approximately seven points on a ten-point scale—corresponds to that of countries such as Jamaica, Slovenia or Turkey. In our view, this lends tentative support to the median split approach. The results for the continuous interactions are available upon request.

  8. 8.

    Using country fixed effects instead of the random effects estimator used in the regressions reported in this article reveals that our main result—that recognition rights are positively related to general life satisfaction in countries with below-median economic freedom—is unaffected. This is reassuring, not least in light of the fact that all country fixed effects estimates are identified by the change over time and that the inclusion of fixed effects by definition renders any approximately time-invariant factor insignificant. The results are available upon request.

  9. 9.

    The literature in general disagrees on which exact elements are important for life satisfaction. Gehring (2013) argues that legal quality is more important in rich countries while other elements such as sound money are more important in poor countries. In addition, we note that the within-country variation is substantially smaller for legal quality than for other elements (cf. Sobel and Coyne 2011).

  10. 10.

    In further tests, we experiment with different measures of norms from the World Values Survey/European Values Study. We first use the share of respondents stating that they would not like homosexuals as neighbours as an alternative measure of the acceptance of gay people. This measure is also far from significance. When including the share that would not like neighbours of a different race, and the share that regards divorce as justifiable, neither of these variables changes our main findings, although the divorce measure is significant and negatively associated with life satisfaction.

  11. 11.

    Given the nature of the available data and the method used we cannot rule out that there could be some other, simultaneous reforms that drive the increase in general happiness. Still, we consider this unlikely, since the particular part of equal rights that turns out to be significantly related to general life satisfaction (recognition, capturing equal treatment in the area of marriage, adoption and the age of consent) is an area where the rights of different-sex couples were established a long time ago, in most countries well before the 1970 s (Cretney 2003). In contrast, debates regarding and implementation of equal family rights for same-sex couples have as a rule taken place later and without simultaneous changes in family law for the population at large.

  12. 12.

    We have performed a full jackknife test in which each of the 93 countries were excluded one at a time, as well as a similar period jackknife. The results are not sensitive to these systematic sample and time-period variations. As a sensitivity test we also ascertained that our main findings are not driven by observations with either extreme life satisfaction scores or extreme recognition rights. These results are available upon request.

  13. 13.

    It could also be that people in less economically free countries are more family-oriented and conservative in their values, such that they derive satisfaction from strengthened opportunities and incentives for gays and lesbians to enter into stable family arrangements. However, in tests (not shown) where we include a variable from the WVS capturing how justifiable divorce is, we find no indication that such features are more important in less free countries.

  14. 14.

    One can refine this analysis of “the politics of life satisfaction” in various ways, e.g., by introducing interest groups in addition to voters and by shifting the focus from what makes most voters satisfied to what makes marginal voters satisfied. Still, the key point is that life satisfaction is the driving force of those whose support matter for the politicians to be (re-)elected (Vis 2010).


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The authors wish to thank two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet, Grant 2103-734, Berggren and Nilsson), Torsten Söderberg’s Foundation (Grant E1/14, Berggren and Nilsson), the Czech Science Foundation (GA ČR, Grant 16-19934S, Berggren and Nilsson) and the Jan Wallander and Tom Hedelius Foundation (Bjørnskov) for financial support.

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Correspondence to Niclas Berggren.



Here we document the construction of the three indices of equal rights of gays and lesbians, as well as the overall index. All are based on information in ILGA (2015) that provides data on the current status but also allows us to reconstruct the prior status of countries. We do so using the information on when laws and regulations were changed, which enables us to trace changes back in time. We can therefore provide a full panel of indicators back to 1980 for all countries in our sample.

We first code recognition as the sum of four variables: whether the law recognizes the same age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual activity (a score of 1), whether it is the same for heterosexual and lesbian activity (0) or whether the age of consent differs (−1); whether same-sex activity is illegal (a score of −1), legal for lesbian activity (0) or legal for both sexes (1); whether joint adoption is allowed for homosexual couples; and whether marriage union is legal on the same terms as heterosexual couples (a score of 1), whether the law recognizes legal partnership (0) or if it is illegal (−1). The protection index likewise consists of four subindices: whether there is prohibition against discrimination in employment decisions; prohibition against discrimination based on sexual preferences; prohibition of hate crimes; and prohibition against incitement to hatred. Finally, the (absence of) persecution index consists of two dummy variables capturing whether homosexual activity is punishable by death and whether there are specific propaganda laws prohibiting the ‘advertisement’ of homosexuality.

The resulting variables can thus range between −2 and 0 (persecution), −3 and 4 (recognition), and 0 and 4 (protection). The full index can consequently vary between −5 and 8. However, as can be seen in Table 4, the actual range in our data is smaller for recognition (−2 to 3), which leaves us with the full index varying between −4 and 7.

Table 4 Descriptive statistics

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Berggren, N., Bjørnskov, C. & Nilsson, T. Do Equal Rights for a Minority Affect General Life Satisfaction?. J Happiness Stud 19, 1465–1483 (2018).

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  • Life satisfaction
  • Same-sex marriage
  • Rights
  • Institutions
  • Culture
  • Immigration
  • Tolerance
  • Gays and lesbians
  • Minorities
  • Integration