A person’s happiness appears to depend more upon the freedom to make choices rather than having money, at least according to a review of data from 63 countries.
In the study, researchers at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand wanted to know one thing: What is more important for well-being, providing people with money or providing them with choices and autonomy?
The investigation helps to fill in gaps in determining the values or attributes that contribute to happiness and life satisfaction among a worldwide sample.
“Our findings provide new insights into well-being at the societal level,” they wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “Providing individuals with more autonomy appears to be important for reducing negative psychological symptoms, relatively independent of wealth.”
Psychologists Drs. Ronald Fischer and Diana Boer looked at studies involving three different psychological tests — the General Health Questionnaire, which measures four symptoms of distress (somatic symptoms, anxiety and insomnia, social dysfunction and severe depression); the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, which tests how respondents feel at a particular moment; and the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which tests for emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and lack of personal accomplishment.
Altogether, they examined a sample of 420,599 people from 63 countries spanning nearly 40 years.
In the research process, Fischer and Boer statistically combined the results of the different studies, noting that their analysis was somewhat unusual in that the key variables were collected from different sources and that no single study included the two variables they were considering, i.e., wealth and individualism. (Participants only answered questions regarding one of the dependent variables of general health, anxiety or burnout.)
“Across all three studies and four data sets, we observed a very consistent and robust finding that societal values of individualism were the best predictors of well-being,” the authors wrote. “Furthermore, if wealth was a significant predictor alone, this effect disappeared when individualism was entered.”
In short, they found, “Money leads to autonomy but it does not add to well-being or happiness.”
Prior research suggests that once people reach the point of being able to meet their basic needs, more money is only mildly associatiated with happiness or the money may be associated with less well-being as people worry about “keeping up with the Joneses.” These patterns were mostly confirmed in their findings.
Overall, more autonomy and freedom are associated with more well-being, but the road to well-being is bumpy at times. In more traditional and collectivistic societies, increases in individualism can be associated with anxiety and lower well-being. In more individualistic European countries, in contrast, greater individualism leads to more well-being.
“These increases in well-being with higher individualism, however, leveled off toward the extreme ends of individualism, indicating that too much autonomy may not be beneficial … but the very strong overall pattern was that individualism is associated with better well-being overall,” they wrote.
Researchers posit that this means that while individualism is associated with contentment and well-being, extreme levels of individualism (often found in the United States) can separate family and loved ones and can increase levels of stress and ill-being.