06/29/2011 06:29 pm ET | Updated Aug 29, 2011

Underemployment, Unhappiness, Higher Education Linked: Study

With unemployment at 9.1 percent, and the broader underemployment rate at 15.8 percent, a Gallup poll released Wednesday suggests that higher-educated Americans are taking it hardest.

The poll found that Americans who had earned a college or postgraduate degree, and who were unemployed or working fewer hours than they’d like, were less likely to report satisfaction with their lives than people in similar employment situations who hadn’t finished college.

Gallup used a metric called the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale, which asks respondents to rate their current level of contentedness from one to ten, and to predict what level they’d be at in five years. Based on their answers, survey respondents are separated into categories of “thriving,” “struggling,” and “suffering.”

Wednesday’s poll found that only 50 percent of underemployed Americans with a college degree fell into the “thriving” category, compared with 67 percent of college graduates who were employed to their satisfaction -- in other words, people who had full-time jobs, or who had part-time jobs but weren’t looking for full-time work. Gallup notes this is a 17-point difference.

Among underemployed Americans with postgraduate degrees, 54 percent could be classed as “thriving.” For employed Americans with postgraduate degrees, the number climbed to 71 percent -- another 17-point difference.

By contrast, 41 percent of underemployed Americans with a high school degree or less, and 51 percent of employed Americans at the same education level, could be considered “thriving.”

That’s only a 10-point difference, leading Gallup’s Elizabeth Mendes to conclude:

The findings suggest that there is something about having achieved a higher level of education and about being mid- to late-career age that allows underemployment to have a more significant effect on on one's life.

The poll dovetails with other Gallup findings about the relationship between mental health and unemployment or underemployment. Earlier this month, a Gallup survey found that underemployed Americans were 15 percent less likely to be “thriving” than those who were employed. A March 2010 Gallup poll found a 19-point difference for the same question among the two groups.

But, in fact, there’s a body of research that suggests that those with college degrees are just naturally more prone to dissatisfaction, not less. In February 2010, Richard Florida at the University of Toronto found a fairly strong correlation between happiness and higher education in some metropolitan areas.

The Cantril scale shows up often in Gallup polls, including a widely publicized survey of the world’s happiest countries, which appeared in April.

It’s based on the work of Hadley Cantril, a researcher who set forth the idea for the scale in his 1965 book The Pattern of Human Concerns. In 2003, an article in the journal Health and Quality of Life Outcomes suggested the Cantril scale had been developed with “extensive attention to diversity and individual perspective.”