The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

The Happiness of Most Nations is Increasing

The happiness of most nations is increasing.

Can happiness be lastingly increased? It is clear that we can momentarily boost someone's sense of well-being (e.g., with backrubs, scoops of chocolate ice cream, or silly love songs), but one of the long-standing beliefs among social scientists is that happiness in the long term is more-or-less fixed, the result of a genetically-determined set-point that places people on a hedonic treadmill. Research has recently challenged this belief. Life events can alter an individual's set-point (Diener, Lucas, & Scollon, 2006), and we know that deliberate interventions can boost the life satisfaction and happiness of individuals, so long as the behavioral changes encouraged by these interventions become part of the individual's habitual repertoire (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).

What about the overall happiness of nations? Findings that happiness can change for individuals need not mean that the happiness levels of given societies can change. Perhaps individual-level changes are idiosyncratic, meaning that the relative gains and losses of different individuals within a given nation cancel each other out, resulting in no discernible shifts for a society in the aggregate. Research to date has supported this view--that the average life satisfaction of people in a given nation is fixed--but now this conclusion has been challenged as well.

Drawing on a unique resource--the World Values Survey--Ronald Inglehart, Roberto Foa, Christian Welzel, and I recently published a paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science showing that the happiness and life satisfaction of nations have increased in dozens of nations around the world over the past few decades.

The World Values Survey is an ambitious project that periodically surveys people around the world with respect to their attitudes, beliefs, and values. Questions range from the mundane ("Is throwing away litter ever justified") to the sacred ("How often do you think about the meaning and purpose of life?). It also asks respondents about their life satisfaction and their happiness.

The World Values Survey stands apart from similar endeavors because of the large number of nations included-dozens of different countries containing 85% of the world's population-and because respondents in each nation are representative samples--i.e., they represent the range of individuals across important contrasts like age, gender, education, occupation, and the like. Most samples studied by social scientists and certainly psychologists are convenience samples, recruited by the researcher from available individuals: students in a college course, surfers on the Internet, children at a local daycare center, and so on. The hope in each case is that the convenience sample somewhat resembles the larger population to which one wishes to generalize results, but this is usually an ideal more than an actuality. Accordingly, findings from the World Values Survey are to be taken very seriously.

According to our findings, during the past two decades, both life satisfaction and happiness have increased in the majority of the 52 nations for which there were substantial data. Life satisfaction rose in 63% of these societies, and happiness increased in 87% of them.

What was responsible for these changes? According to the internal analyses of the data that we conducted, increased perceptions of choice and control foreshadowed increased well-being. Choice and control were in turn foreshadowed by increased economic growth and democratization of a nation.

These are dramatic patterns, and one should ask why so many social scientists for so long believed that the happiness and life satisfaction of nations do not change. Part of the reason is that the most complete data over time--other than the World Values Survey--have come from the United States, and mean scores of US residents have indeed been rather flat for decades. Why that is the case is an interesting question, but in any event, the US appears to be a happiness anomaly.

What are the implications? Is a happier world a better world--more tolerant, more peaceful, more creative, and more healthy? In other words, will national and global changes in happiness someday produce the sorts of outcomes found at the individual level? I do not know, and skeptics will say no way. But to echo Brian Wilson and Tony Asher, wouldn't it be nice?

References

Diener, E., Lucas, R. E. & Scollon, C.N. (2006). Beyond the hedonic treadmill: revising the adaptation theory of well-being. American Psychologist, 61, 305-314.

Inglehart, R., Foa, R., Peterson, C., & Weizel, C. (2008). Development, freedom, and rising happiness: A global perspective, 1981-2007. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 264-285.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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