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What’s More Important, Your Family's Happiness or Your Own?

In every study, on every continent, family comes first.

Key points

  • Does the desire for personal happiness supersede everything else?
  • People everywhere value family happiness more than personal happiness.
  • And we care most about family when we know they are family for life.

The most important decisions we make in life are calculated to ensure a degree of happiness. We marry someone or choose a line of work because we believe they will make us happy.

Even the choices we make every day are meant to bring a little happiness into life. Sitting at a café, drinking coffee. Having lunch with a good friend. Watching an episode of “Ted Lasso” after dinner.

The desire to be happy is so robust and ubiquitous that behavioral scientists have dubbed it “the ultimate dependent variable.” In a psychological sense, nothing is more important.

But is that really true? Does the desire for personal happiness supersede everything else? Or might another form of happiness—the happiness of one’s family—be more important?

Cross-National Studies of Personal and Family Happiness

Two years ago, an international team of researchers reported a startling discovery. Hundreds of university students in four countries—Canada, Colombia, Japan, and Poland—said they valued their family’s happiness over their own happiness (Krys et al., 2021). The finding was surprising because the same pattern appeared in all four countries—even Canada, a decidedly individualistic society that presumably places personal concerns above family concerns.

The researchers, led by cultural psychologist Kuba Krys at the Polish Academy of Sciences, suspected they had uncovered a psychological universal: People everywhere value family happiness more than personal happiness.

To test the generality of their findings, Krys and his colleagues conducted a second study. They surveyed more than 12,000 individuals in 49 countries on six continents. Most participants (83 percent) were university students; their average age was 25 years.

The participants answered a series of questions designed to assess their views about

  1. the importance of personal happiness
  2. the importance of family happiness

Their responses provided strong evidence for the universality of the phenomenon, “family happiness is valued more than personal happiness” (Krys et al., 2023).

In 48 of the 49 countries studied, both men and women said their family’s happiness and well-being were more important than their own happiness and well-being. The difference was not large, but it was statistically significant. Moreover, the primacy of family happiness was found not only in collectivistic societies like Nigeria and Taiwan but also in highly individualistic societies like Australia and the United States.

The Role of Relational Mobility

After thoroughly examining their data, Krys’s team found one variable—relational mobility—that was able to predict the degree to which respondents valued family happiness over personal happiness.

Relational mobility (RM) refers to the ease with which members of a society can form or sever interpersonal relationships. In low RM societies—in East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, for example—people have relatively few friendships, but these relationships are long-lasting and not easily abandoned. In high RM societies—in North America, Western Europe, and Latin America, for example—relationships can develop and dissolve quickly. People more easily find new friends, leave old friends behind, and establish new families (Thomson et al., 2018).

Krys’s team found a moderately strong inverse relationship (r = -0.44) between relational mobility and the importance of family happiness. In their study, members of societies with low RM valued family over personal happiness to a larger extent than did members of societies with high RM. This makes good sense. We care most about family when we know they are our family for life, not easily abandoned and not easily replaced.

Despite the usual limitations—nonrepresentative samples and the possibility of socially desirable responses, both of which Krys and his colleagues acknowledge—the findings of this large cross-national study may prompt behavioral scientists to reconsider their earlier claim that personal happiness is the ultimate dependent variable. It seems family happiness matters even more.

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Krys, K., Capaldi, C. A., Zelenski, J. M., Park, J., Nader, M., Kocimska-Zych, A., ... & Uchida, Y. (2021). Family well-being is valued more than personal well-being: A four-country study. Current Psychology, 40, 3332-3343.

Krys, K., Chun Yeung, J., Haas, B. W., Van Osch, Y., Kosiarczyk, A., Kocimska-Zych, A., ... & Uchida, Y. (2023). Family first: Evidence of consistency and variation in the value of family versus personal happiness across 49 different cultures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 54(3), 323-339.

Thomson, R., Yuki, M., Talhelm, T., Schug, J., Kito, M., Ayanian, A. H., ... & Visserman, M. L. (2018). Relational mobility predicts social behaviors in 39 countries and is tied to historical farming and threat. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(29), 7521-7526.

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