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Needs and Subjective Well-Being across the World

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 27 June 2011
Maslow's Hierarch of Needs

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

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Most people with an interest in psychology have heard of Maslow’s theory of motivation and hierarchy of needs, which suggest that we’re driven to satisfy basic physiological needs (such as for food and shelter) first, then to satisfy our needs for safety, love and belonging, self-esteem and lastly self-actualization.

For those interested in positive psychology, there are many unanswered questions about the link between such needs and subjective well-being (SWB) which is why this new research by Louis Tay and Ed Diener caught my eye today.  Some of the questions tackled in the study include whether needs really are universal and if so whether they are related to subjective well-being (SWB) in all cultures, and whether needs are individually required or influence well-being synergistically.

Tay and Diener analyze Gallup World Poll (GWP) data on SWB and needs. As always when reading research papers you need to look carefully at the definitions and measurements used. In this case SWB is defined as a combination of three things:

  1. Life evaluation  – measured by Cantril’s Self-Anchoring Striving Scale (also known as the Ladder of Life)
  2. Positive emotions  – assessed using daily experiences of smiling/laughter and enjoyment
  3. Negative emotions – assessed using daily experiences of worry, sadness, depression and anger

Measurement Limitations

Although the Ladder of Life is a very simple tool for measuring life evaluations, making it ideal for use across different countries, previous research suggests that in collectivist cultures people may actually base their life satisfaction judgements on the opinions of significant others rather than on a self-evaluation.

The other potential problem is that in the GWP people were asked about their experiences of four negative emotions and only two positive ones. Perhaps their responses are weighted in some way, but if so, it isn’t clear how.

Analyzed Needs

The six needs which were analyzed in this study were as follows.

  1. Basic –  whether the respondent had enough money for food and shelter in the past 12 months
  2. Safety– whether the respondent felt safe walking alone; didn’t have anything stolen in past 12 months; wasn’t assaulted in last 12 months
  3. Social support – whether the respondent experienced love yesterday; had others to count on for help in an emergency
  4. Respect – whether the respondent felt treated with respect; was proud of something
  5. Mastery – whether the respondent had the experience of learning something; did what s/he does best at work
  6. Autonomy– whether the respondent could choose how to spend time; whether s/he experienced freedom in life

These don’t map perfectly onto Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as shown below (or any other positive psychology models) but they’re taken to be a good enough approximation. A need was scored as fulfilled if all the items relating to it were answered affirmatively. Note that there are some caveats about the measures used by Gallup which get a very brief mention at the end of the paper.

Maslow's Hierarcy h of Needs

     Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - as pictured in the Conversations with Dina blog


As this is a pretty complex piece of research, containing multiple studies, there isn’t space here to present the findings in detail, so the focus is on the things that stand out most.

In terms of correlations between the six different needs and the three aspects of SWB outlined above, I was surprised to see the strongest correlation was only a moderate one in one of the eight cultural regions of the world (respect needs were positively correlated with positive emotion in Africa (r = +0.40)). Otherwise all the other correlations between needs and the three aspects of SWB were weak (r = 0.38 or lower) across all world regions. Towards the end of the paper, the researchers suggest that the correlation sizes may be reduced by measurement error (such as differences in translation) and point out that such correlations can show very sizeable mean differences at the extremes and amount to very large effects when applied to billions of people.

The fulfillment of needs in combination (i.e. all six needs of the above taken together) explained between 10% and 23% of the total variance in SWB, depending on which aspect of SWB we’re referring to.  In terms of life evaluation, having needs met explained 13% of the variance; in terms of positive emotions, 23% of the variance; in terms of negative emotions, 10%. Tay and Diener refer to these percentages as substantial. I’m not sure I agree.

In order to understand which of the six needs is most important, these percentages have been broken down even further;  we’re told that basic needs were the strongest predictor of life evaluations (at 63% of the 13%), respect and social needs were the important predictors of positive emotions  (36% and 24%  of the 23% respectively), and respect, basic and autonomy  needs were the important predictors of negative emotions (25%,  23% and 22% of the 10% respectively). If that leaves your brain feeling a little fuzzy, I understand.

Impact of Income

As the research is based on GWP data, household income could also be taken into account. For life evaluations, when need fulfillment and income were taken together, they explained 22% of the variance. The proportion of the variance accounted for by basic needs decreased from 63% to 24%, with income becoming the strongest predictor (55%).

However the inclusion of income made no difference to the variance accounted for in positive and negative emotions. In an earlier study Ed Diener and his colleagues Weiting Ng, James Harter and Raksha Arora argued that higher income is associated with life evaluation in part through the fulfillment of basic needs, which seems to be supported by this research. However I was surprised to see how small the correlations between needs and life evaluation were.

Other Relationships Between Meeting Needs and Subjective Well-Being

The current study also asks whether meeting all of your needs leads to high SWB, and not having them met leads to low SWB. Intuitively, this makes sense, especially if we’re considering the basic needs like food and shelter.  After all, it would be pretty hard to be satisfied with life if you’re homeless and hungry. Once all your needs are met, why wouldn’t you be happy? So it makes sense that 82% of respondents who said none of their needs were met reported low life satisfaction, scoring 5 out of 10 or lower on the Cantril Ladder, and just over half of them reported no positive emotion and/or high negative emotion.  

But even though a high proportion of those who said all their needs were met  reported high positive emotions and/or low negative emotion,  32% of them still reported low life satisfaction and only 14% scored high (9 or 10 out of 10). It seems that there really are some people who are never satisfied! Clearly whether or not your needs are met contributes to your well-being, but the relationship isn’t simple, and it would appear that there are other factors in the mix.

Up the ladder

Up the ladder

Further Reflections on Needs and Well-being

In terms of whether or not the order in which needs are met is important, as suggested by Maslow’s hierarchy, the study found that people do tend to meet their basic and safety needs first. However meeting the various needs has relatively independent effects on SWB. This suggests, for example, that you can achieve well-being by meeting psychosocial needs even if your basic needs aren’t fully met.

Tay and Diener conclude that there are universal need predictors of well-being, and that different aspects of SWB have different correlates. Basic needs are important for life evaluations, social and respect needs are important for positive feelings, and the experience of negative feelings is more related to whether basic needs, respect needs and autonomy needs are met.

These patterns are the same across world regions.  In addition to this, after taking into account the effects of needs on SWB, income accounts for virtually no additional variation. Finally the various needs make separable contributions to well-being, which might explain why people in the poorest countries can still report some level of well-being through social relationships and other psychological needs even whilst their basic needs are barely met.


Of course, as usual the one big caveat is that the data in this Gallup study are cross-sectional, so we cannot be certain of the causal directions, although Tay and Diener believe that the many of the relationships are two-way rather than one-way. They also acknowledge, in the closing paragraphs of the paper, that the measures used in the Gallup world survey are “undoubtedly less than optimal in terms of reliability.” Gallup, being a commerical organization, doesn’t reveal the full details (especially the weaknesses) of its measurements in the way that an independent researcher would, so this comment is about as critical as you’re going to get.

Tay and Diener suggest that in future research it may be desirable to have additional measures of both needs and SWB that don’t depend on self-report. I think in the early days of positive psychology Ed Diener argued for self-report measures so this is an interesting development. Quite how you can measure subjective well-being without self-report is anyone’s guess! Leaving that aside, better measures, they argue, may provide stronger associations.



Cantril, H. (1965). Pattern of Human Concerns. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Diener, E., Ng, W., Harter, J., & Arora , R. (2010). Wealth and happiness across the world: Material prosperity predicts life evaluation, whereas psychosocial prosperity predicts positive feeling. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 52-61. Both researchers are from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ed Diener also works for the Gallup Organization which provided the data for this study.

Tay, L. & Diener, E. (2011). Needs and subjective well-being around the world. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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Maslow hierarchy from creative chaos, Conversations with Dina
Up the ladder courtesy of Java Tarsis

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Delyan Savov 28 June 2011 - 11:35 am

Thank you for the lovely summery of this research. I am also very curious how one can measure SWB objectively (not through self-report). Maybe they meant the Analyzed Needs, although some of these are also quite subjective.
I am interested if in this study they looked at how positive emotions and (I am particularly curios especially about) negative emotions shape Life Satisfaction and SWB (although this is not the purpose of the study). And does this vary across regions?
Do you happen to know?
I think that negative emotions have a lesser effect on Life Satisfaction and SWB than positive ones, especially in some cultures.
What do you think?
Do you happen to know of a study on the subject?

MrSkeptic 6 July 2011 - 4:25 pm

moderate correlations…doesn’t every psychological researcher find these when they do correlation research?

Bridget 14 July 2011 - 3:15 am

Hi Delyan

Thanks for your comments. Perhaps the idea about measuring SWB other than by self-report was a slip of the pen. Or perhaps they meant they’d measure the life satisfaction aspect of SWB objectively.

In this study they measured positive and negative emotions using the Gallup questions rather than an assessment created specifically for this purpose such as PANAS or SPANE. I don’t know if asking someone if they smiled or enjoyed themselves yesterday is as good a measure of positive emotion as using PANAS/SPANE. There are a whole range of positive emotions that may not be covered by smiling/enjoyment. The same goes for their measure of negative emotion.

I don’t think we know enough about the SWB = Satisfaction with Life + Affect ‘formula’ yet – we don’t know how much the cognitive and affective elements contribute to SWB. The Gallup study suggests that they do vary independently across regions.

I’m sure one of the PPND regulars commented recently that emotions are not so highly valued in some cultures -I will see if I can find a reference.


Bridget 14 July 2011 - 3:27 am

Hi Mr Skeptic

I don’t know if that’s the case. I just remember our stats tutors emphasising the point that science wouldn’t be science if you only published selectively & even if your research turns up moderate/weak correlations this can still be important.


Javã Társis 23 January 2014 - 8:38 am

Hey, this photo is mine. ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/javatarsis/5525133032/ ). Please put the credit on it. Thanks.

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