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Well-Being and the Democratic State: How the Public Sector Promotes Human Happiness


While a growing literature within the study of subjective well-being demonstrates the impact of socio-political factors on subjective well-being, scholars have conspicuously failed to consider the role of the size and scope of government as determinants of well-being. In this study, we examine the size of the public sector as a determinant of cross-national variation in life satisfaction across the industrial democracies. At the individual-level, we find that public employees are happier and exhibit greater life satisfaction than otherwise similar others. At the aggregate level, the data strongly suggest that the subjective well-being varies positively with the size of the public sector. The implications for the study of life satisfaction are discussed.

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  1. 1.

    OECD member states in our sample include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Chile, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Missing values on independent/control variables make the sample smaller in some models.

  2. 2.

    “Taking all things together, would you say you are: ‘Very happy’; ‘Quite happy’; ‘Not very happy’; ‘Not at all happy.” We have recoded the original response categories so that higher values again represent greater happiness.

  3. 3.

    Data were drawn from the OECD data archive at data.OECD.org. We classified public sector employment with the OECD data category for labor force employed in public administration for included years.

  4. 4.

    In the models that follow, GDP per capita is scaled by 1000 for ease of interpretation of coefficients.

  5. 5.

    For ease of presentation, we follow the literature in treating the SWB measures as interval rather than ordinal and thus present conventional OLS-type coefficients; however, using ordered probit model produces substantively identical results.

  6. 6.

    We experimented with a number of logical interactions between public employment and other independent variables. Of these, only income showed a statistically significant relationship that (while modest in magnitude) was of the expected sign, i.e. the greater one’s income the less the contribution of public employment to one’s well-being. It is perhaps worth observing that the interaction with union membership is not significant, as expected.


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Pacek, A., Radcliff, B. & Brockway, M. Well-Being and the Democratic State: How the Public Sector Promotes Human Happiness. Soc Indic Res 143, 1147–1159 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-018-2017-x

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  • Public employment
  • Size of government
  • Happiness
  • Life satisfaction
  • Welfare state
  • Labor unions
  • Public sector