By Bridget Grenville-Cleave
Over the past decade or so there have been many Positive Psychology articles exploring the relationship between money and happiness. Myers (2000), Diener and Oishi (2000), Blanchflower and Oswald (2004), and Layard (2005) amongst others have presented research which suggests that increasing wealth does not buy happiness (this graph illustrates this point for the USA). The argument, put simply, is that in the Western World economic well-being has increased significantly since the 1950s, but that during the same period of time, levels of happiness have stayed pretty much the same. Amongst the explanations put forward are the existence of the so-called hedonic treadmill and the happiness set-point, which mean that happiness only increases temporarily – eventually we return to our genetically predetermined base level.
Happiness is on the up…
The good news is that according to a new study by Inglehart, Foa, Peterson and Welzel (2008), happiness is actually increasing: in this longitudinal study between 1981 and 2007, happiness levels went up in 45 out of 52 countries. And contrary to what you might conclude from Myers’ graph (mentioned above), the US is one of those countries which shows an upward trend in happiness (p. 276). Several countries (e.g. India, Ireland, and Mexico) show steeply rising trends, and only four countries show downward trends (Austria, Belgium, the UK, and West Germany). So how do we explain the apparent inconsistency between Myers and Inglehart et al?
In Inglehart et al’s study, data was taken from the World Values Survey, in which life satisfaction is assessed by asking people how satisfied they are with their life as a whole (using a scale that ranges from 1 (not at all satisfied) to 10 (very satisfied)) and happiness is assessed by asking how happy they are using four categories (very happy, rather happy, not very happy and not at all happy). The researchers then constructed their own Subjective Well-Being Index (SWB = life satisfaction – 2.5 x happiness). Using this measure, they conclude that since the 1980s (the date from which they have consistent country-level data) happiness is increasing in the vast majority of the countries they studied.
Myers, on the other hand, doesn’t use life satisfaction data at all: instead his graph is based on happiness data in the General Social Survey, which asks “taken all together, how would you say things are these days–would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” As a result, he reports that the number of Americans who describe themselves as being “very happy” has declined from 35% to 33% between 1957 and 1998 (p. 61). But if you look at the GSS data on happiness for the years 1972 (the earliest data I could access) and 2006, those saying they are “very happy” increased by 2.7%, those who said they are “pretty happy” increased by 2.9% and those who said they are “not too happy” declined by 5.5%… The trend from the early 1970s onwards, then, seems to be that happiness is increasing. So perhaps both Myers and Inglehart et al are correct in the conclusions they draw from their data, even though they appear to be contradictory… No wonder statistics is such a popular subject with politicians!
Statistics aside, what is particularly important about Inglehart et al’s paper is that they draw a very clear distinction between life satisfaction and happiness. They link economic prosperity to life satisfaction and SWB, but not to happiness. Interestingly, these researchers suggest that even though happiness and life satisfaction tend to rise and fall together, they can move in different directions (p. 272-3), which explains why some ex-communist Eastern European countries saw happiness increase, but life satisfaction decrease, during their transition to democracy in the 80s and 90s. Thus the linkage between happiness, life satisfaction, and wealth is not as straightforward as we might at first think.
Free Choice Increases Happiness?
Happiness has risen, they suggest, due to increasing democratization over the past 25 years, which means that people increasingly feel they have free choice (e.g. freedom of speech, to travel and in politics) and control over their lives. Significantly, according to their research, free choice was the only variable which showed a statistically significant association with change in SWB, regardless of whether the SWB Index, happiness, or life satisfaction was the dependent variable. In fact “by itself, free choice explained 30% of the change over time in SWB” (p. 270).
Free choice and control over one’s life are linked to economic security, of course, but they are about much more than that. Social tolerance of diverse lifestyles (e.g. of sexuality, gender equality, other ethnic groups, religious expression, self expression and so on) is a vital component in increasing personal happiness, because it broadens the range of choices available. Whilst economic growth may ultimately be an important factor in increasing well-being, social tolerance seems to be much more so (see chart below); as a result we now have some evidence that it is possible to increase happiness at a country level.
So what does applied positive psychology tell us about developing social tolerance? Well, unsurprisingly given the recency of these conclusions, according to my search of PsycARTICLES and PsycINFO at the moment, not a lot, which means there may be a great opportunity for someone out there to make a major contribution to this field. Any takers?
Blanchflower, D. & Oswald, A. (2004, July). Well-being over time in Britain and the USA. Journal of Public Economics, 88(7/8), 1359.
Diener, E. & Oishi, S. (2000). Money and happiness: Income and subjective well-being across nations. In E.Diener & E.M. Suh, Culture and Subjective Well-Being (Well Being and Quality of Life), (pp. 185-218). Cambridge, MA, US: The MIT Press.
Inglehart, R., Foa, R., Peterson, C. & Welzel, C. (2008). Development, freedom, and rising happiness: A global perspective (1981-2007). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(4), 264-285.
Layard, R. (2005). Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. New York: Penguin.
Myers, D. (2000). The funds, friends and faith of happy people. American Psychologist, 55(1), 56-67
1. thisduck, 2. mac steve, 3. s_k_s.