How Much Is Enough?

New study finds that ideal levels of happiness are not the same everywhere.

Posted Oct 03, 2018

In an ideal world, we'd all choose to be maximally happy, healthy, and free. Right? Not right, according to a new study by an international team of researchers led by University of Queensland psychologist Matthew Hornsey.

Hornsey and his colleagues surveyed more than 6,000 people from 27 nations scattered across six continents. About half of the respondents were women; the average age of respondents was 41 years.

Respondents answered questions about "the ideal life."  Here are four of the questions:

  • If you could choose the extent to which you experienced happiness, what level would you choose?
  • If you could choose the level of freedom in your own life, what level would you choose?
  • If you could choose your level of intelligence, what level would you choose?
  • If you could choose your level of health, what level would you choose?

The maximization principle—that people desire the largest possible amount of things they consider positive—predicts that, when asked questions like the ones above, most people will choose very high levels of happiness, liberty, and so forth.

But Hornsey and his team found that most people didn't choose the highest possible level. In fact, most people chose levels corresponding to 70% or 80% of the highest possible level. For example, most people said they wanted to be very smart but not genius-smart. They wanted to be very happy but not happy all the time. In short, most people in the study subscribed to the moderation principle: "People impose mindful ceilings on how much of a good thing they aspire to in a perfect world" (Hornsey et al., 2018).

The researchers next turned their attention to a curious finding: Respondents in one group of nations followed the moderation principle more faithfully than respondents in other nations. Specifically, people in China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea chose ideal levels (of happiness, freedom, intelligence, and health) that were almost 9% lower than the levels chosen by people in the remaining 21 nations.

Culture experts might be tempted to explain the difference by referring to the oft-studied cultural dimension of I (individualism) and C (collectivism). But Hornsey and his colleagues point out that respondents in two collectivist countries—Indonesia and the Philippines—chose ideal levels as high as (or higher than) the levels chosen by respondents in strongly individualistic countries like the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

The key that unlocks the puzzle, according to the authors of the study, is the holistic thinking pattern that is inculcated in nations that have a strong tradition of East Asian religions like Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism. (Indonesia is a Muslim nation, and the Philippines is a Christian nation.)

Holistic thinkers believe that seemingly contradictory forces exist together in an interrelated state like yin and yang. One cannot know happiness without also knowing sadness, and vice-versa.

Holistic thinkers also believe that experiences and states are always changing. If I feel sad today, I'll probably feel happy tomorrow. If I'm healthy this month, I'll probably be sick next month. In this sense, it doesn't really matter what I am today because everything can and will eventually change.

Finally, holistic thinkers typically possess an interdependent sense of self that is based on social roles and obligations to others. Interdependent persons may not choose the highest levels of happiness, intelligence, and health because to do so would be a sign of immaturity and hubris.

For holistic thinkers, more moderate levels of happiness, freedom, intelligence, and health are—for a variety of reasons—preferable to the highest possible levels.

How much is enough in a perfect world? Less in some countries than others.

References

Hornsey, M. J., and 8 others. (2018). How much is enough in a perfect world? Cultural variation in ideal levels of happiness, pleasure, freedom, health, self-esteem, longevity, and intelligence. Psychological Science, 29(9), 1393-1404.

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