Belief in free will may be linked to increased feelings of happiness in both individualistic and group-oriented cultures, according to a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Free will is described as the ability to make independent choices, where the outcome of the choice is not influenced by past events.
Psychology research has shown that Western and Asian cultures tend to have different core beliefs around free will.
Western culture is described as individualistic, where people are largely focused on personal achievements rather than group goals. In collectivist cultures, however, such as those of China and Japan, people tend to focus more on group goals — such as a work group or family — and there is less focus on personal freedom.
The existence of free will is the subject of debate among psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers. The argument against free will is that each decision we make is completely influenced by our previous life experiences. In other words, this theory states that when we are given a certain choice, our experiences will trigger us to respond in a certain way — which is actually not a free choice.
So why might believing in free will make someone feel happier? Perhaps such a belief increases levels of perceived autonomy and helps to facilitate self-control and deliberate effort to achieve goals, leading to successful outcomes.
In fact, previous studies with Western participants have found that a belief in free will is tied to increased happiness, better work performance and academic achievements, and fewer negative behaviors such as cheating. In contrast, in studies where Western participants were given information that discouraged a belief in free will, researchers saw an increase in cheating behavior, aggression, and decreased self-control.
For the new study, the researchers wanted to determine whether a belief in free will can impact levels of happiness in Chinese people. They asked Chinese teenagers a series of questions about their own beliefs in free will as well as their own levels of happiness.
They found that 85 percent of the Chinese teenagers expressed a belief in free will, and that this belief was positively correlated with happiness. This suggests that believing in free will may have a beneficial effect on happiness, regardless of individualistic or collectivistic cultural influences.
But even though they found a correlation between believing in free will and greater happiness, the study does not indicate a direct causal effect. Next, the researchers plan to investigate if a belief in free will directly causes happiness in the Chinese population. These studies will involve assessing behavior in people whose beliefs have changed regarding free will.
“We are currently conducting investigations on the potential for causality between these two variables,” said Dr. Jingguang Li, professor at Dali University. “We plan to change participants’ belief in free will in the laboratory by exposing them to materials that either support or disprove the existence of free will, and then observe whether their happiness levels change.”