WASHINGTON — The United States fares well but hardly stars in a new kind of Gallup global survey released Thursday that measured personal well-being in 131 countries using questions such as, "Did you learn or do something interesting yesterday?" and "Do you have confidence in your local police?"
Scandinavians, Canadians, the Irish and New Zealanders came out marginally higher than Americans did in the survey, largely because more of them said they were healthy and fewer said they'd struggled to pay for food or shelter.
On a more upbeat note, though, 77 percent of Americans told the pollsters that they'd smiled or laughed a lot on the day before the survey. Two-thirds said they'd like to have more days like that. Also high was the number of Americans — 84 percent — who said their jobs let them do what they do best every day.
While such indicators sound touchy-feely and subjective, Gallup argues that measures of personal well-being and outlook often reveal more than balance-of-trade figures or the popularity of national leaders does.
Among the survey's surprising findings:
— People in developing countries think good jobs would help them far more than the food and health aid that industrialized countries send. Among sub-Saharan Africans, jobs for young people and AIDS treatment have the same priority.
— Latin Americans are the most optimistic about their economic future.
— Muslim men think Muslim women should have more civil rights.
— Most sub-Saharan Africans say their countries are good places to start businesses. More than 40 percent of men and women say they plan to start businesses in a year.
— Traffic congestion is a graver problem than governments think. People say it hurts productivity, low-wage employment, stress levels, sleep and air quality.
"Most governments think of traffic congestion as a third-tier priority, but it's a real barrier to development," said Jesus Rios, Gallup's senior strategic consultant for Latin America.
The survey doesn't rank countries, because their people have different standards for health and well-being. Gallup doesn't expect good comparisons to be possible for a decade.
Jim Clifton, the chairman and chief executive officer of The Gallup Organization, said "The State of Global Well-Being 2007" got its start after 9-11 with a reporter's question to then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The reporter wanted to know whether Muslims supported the attacks.
Rumsfeld said no one knew, according to Clifton, "because you can't do a Gallup Poll of Muslim opinion."
Clifton knew that Gallup could. Moreover, he soon found that "no one in Washington had any idea what 1.4 billion Muslims in the world were thinking, and yet we were working on intricate strategies that were going to change the world for all time."
"That bothered us," he said. So he ordered a survey that assesses well-being by combining conventional data, such as infant mortality and unemployment, with 100 of Gallup's most telling subjective questions. All were asked of a representative sample of 1,000 people in each country.
While the questions are simple, they're deeply revealing. For example, the one that asks "In your work, do you have an opportunity to do what you do best every day, or not?" measures whether talented workers will stay or leave. Another — "Did you feel well rested yesterday?" — has big implications for worker productivity. Others measure satisfaction, confidence and hope.
Lots of thinkers, including Gallup's, want to rationalize and measure subjective public attitudes, an emerging discipline that they call behavioral economics.
Among them is former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. As he put it in an appearance on "The Daily Show" last month when the world's markets were especially volatile: "I've been dealing with big mathematical models . . . and you know, if I could figure out ways to determine whether or not people are more fearful or changing to euphoric and come up with a way to figure out which way these two things are working, I could forecast the economy better than in any way that I know."
Gallup intends to sell its survey and interpreting service to commercial clients. It tells potential foreign investors, for example, how much natives fear crime. Coupled with other economic data, that could indicate when customers in a particular country are ready to buy consumer electronics or cars.
In answer to the question to Rumsfeld, how much support did Gallup find among the world's Muslims for extremists?
"Eight percent," Clifton reported. "Thirty-five percent love us. The rest are in the middle."
For more information, go to http://www.gallupworldpoll.com/