If, like me, you suspected expanding the average person’s positive freedom was a good way to make their lives more enjoyable and satisfying, the evidence seems to be coming down our your side.
Are we getting happier and more satisfied? Yes, says the giant World Values Survey:
Data from the Values Surveys show that during the past two decades, the Subjective Well-Being index rose in 77% of the countries for which a substantial time series is available. Figure 3 shows the changes observed on the SWB index in all 52 of these countries (with an average of 17 years between the earliest and latest surveys). Contrary to the belief that happiness re-mains constant, SWB rose in 40 countries and fell in only 12,with a median increase of .35 on this index. Putting it in an intuitively more meaningful form, the average percentage of people in these countries saying they were ‘‘very happy’’ increased by almost 7 points. The probability that these increases are due to chance is negligible. A paired t test between the earliest and most recent data for countries with at least a 10-year range of data yields a 0.0001 probability of this rise being ob-served under the null hypothesis of constant global happiness,t(42)53.99.
Why? We’re rich, and rich people tend to be liberal and have more freedom:
We hypothesized that economic development, democratization, and increasingly tolerant societies have contributed to a growing sense of freedom and control. In keeping with this interpretation, the public’s sense of freedom increased in 79% of the countries for which a substantial time series is available from the Values Surveys. This is an overwhelming trend—fully as strong as the global trend toward rising SWB, with which it is closely linked. As the regression analysis in Table 2 demon- strated, a rising sense of free choice is by far the most powerful factor driving rising SWB. By itself, it explains 30% of the changes observed on the SWB index. The fact that the people of most countries experienced a growing sense of free choice from 1981 to 2007 seems to be the core reason why SWB has risen. Figure 4 shows how both the sense of freedom and SWB levels increased in most of these countries from the earliest available survey to the latest one and shows that the two have a strong tendency to rise and fall together (r 5 .71)
Conﬁrming the ﬁndings already reported, economic growth and per capita GDP explained 50% of the country-level differ- ences in SWB (Model 4.1). However, as Sen (2001) argued, the crucial impact of economic development is that it increases freedom of choice. Adding our measure of free choice to the regression increased the explained variance in SWB from 6%to 15% among individuals and from 50%to 71% among countries, while also reducing the impact of the economic variables. A sense of free choice affects people’s SWB more as a property of their society than as an individual characteristic: A person’s SWB is as more affected by the general atmosphere of freedom in the society in which one lives than by one’s individual sense of freedom. As societies become wealthier, threats to survival become less pressing, and people become more tolerant of gender equality and social diversity and give higher priority to self-expression. An index measuring whether one would accept people of another race, immigrants, or homosexuals as neighbors shows a signiﬁcant positive effect at the country-level: People living in more tolerant societies tend to be happier, regardless of their own beliefs (Model 4.3). More open social norms concerning the role of women, ethnic diversity, and alternative lifestyles give people more freedom of choice in how to pursue happiness, and tolerance of diversity increased substantially during the past quarter century. For example, the proportion of respondents claiming that homosexuality is never justiﬁable fell from 33%in 1981 to 16% in 2005–2007 in the countries for which data are available from both periods. Discriminatory attitudes toward women or racial minorities showed similar downward trends in most countries….
The ﬁndings presented here are consistent with the interpretation that economic factors have a strong impact on SWB in low-income countries, but that, at higher levels of development, evolutionary cultural changes occur in which people place increasing emphasis on self-expression and free choice, leading them to increasingly emphasize strategies that maximize free choice and happiness (Inglehart, 1997; Inglehart & Welzel, 2005). In recent years, economic growth, democratization, and these changing cultural strategies actually seem to have raised happiness levels in much of the world. The evidence indicates that these factors were conducive to happiness mainly through their common tendency to increase human freedom, as human development theory argues. Figure 8 shows a path analysis of this causal sequence. As it indicates, democratization and rising social tolerance contributed even more than economic development to a growing sense of free choice and thus to rising levels of happiness. Here, our ﬁndings support Easterlin’s (2005) contention that research on happiness should not just focus on economic growth, but also on noneconomic aspects of well-being. Economic growth makes a positive contribution to SWB, but it is the weakest of the three main factors.
Derek Bok, who just wrote The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being, because of a focus on the US, is less enthusiastic about economic growth, and instead focuses on security and alleviating the suffering of the sick:
After scratching growth and income redistribution off his list, Bok goes on to discuss measures that, the evidence suggests, would increase aggregate happiness. Job loss, he points out, has been shown to be singularly upsetting. According to one frequently cited study, as a downer it outranks divorce or separation. Even when workers find a new position at similar pay, they often fail to regain their earlier level of happiness. But the U.S., according to Bok, does “less than virtually any other advanced industrial nation to cushion the shock of unemployment.” Surely, there is room here for improvement. Bok recommends that unemployment insurance be extended to the fifty per cent (or more) of American workers who are not now covered, and that aid be offered to those who lose their jobs and want to go back to school.
Chronic pain is another source of misery that could be ameliorated by better policy. Current regulations on painkillers, which are aimed at keeping drugs like Oxycontin out of the hands of addicts, have the unfortunate effect of also keeping them away from cancer victims. Depression, too, is often inadequately treated; Bok cites research that suggests that only one out of every six seriously depressed Americans receives the proper care.
“It is not unreasonable to expect the government to . . . provide some simple way to help the mentally ill cope with the confusing array of health care options and agencies and guide them to appropriate treatment,” he writes. “Nor is it impossible to create a health care system that covers all of the mentally ill.”
Bok’s recommendations continue in this vein—better treatment of sleep disorders, more recreational sports programs for kids, improved civics classes. (Research shows that people who participate in political activities such as voting are happier than those who don’t.) The measures may strike readers as inadequate to the task of increasing gross national happiness. But that, it could be argued, only proves Bok’s point: “People do not always know what will give them lasting satisfaction.”