Are Free People Happier and More Satisfied?

May 6, 2009

[First published November 14, 2005] One of the best sources for how values are distributed is the World Values Survey (here), and I have consulted its results a number of times, such as providing evidence on how Arab peoples view democracy (xx). Here, I want to provide their results on the relationship between freedom and subjective well being — happiness and satisfaction. I think all of us assume that the more freedom a people have the greater their happiness and satisfaction with their lives. If this is true, the utilitarian argument — policy should promote the greatest happiness and least pain — alone justifies promoting freedom.

Is it true?

The World Values Survey has published a study by Ronald Inglehart and Hans D. Klingemann, ” Genes, Culture, Democracy, and Happiness,” (in pdf; go here, and search under Hans Klingemann) which answer tries to question. Utilizing surveys done by the European Union over 25 years about respondents well being in 11 European nations, the authors first show that national language differences are not responsible for different survey responses on happiness and satisfaction. They moreover establish that there is not much change within nations over the 25 years. The correlation between earliest and latest EU survey in 1998 is .80. For the World Values Survey sample of 64 nations, it is .81, an amazing stability.

That out of the way, the author’s show that subjective well being is highly correlated with economic development (.70) as measured by GNP. No surprise there. But, they point out:

This process is not linear, however. The correlation weakens as one moves up the economic scale. Above $13,000 in 1995 purchasing power parity, there is no significant linkage between wealth and subjective wellbeing. The transition from a subsistence economy to moderate economic security has a large impact on happiness and life satisfaction, but above the level of Portugal or Spain, economic growth no longer makes a difference.

Another factor in subjective well being is so commonsensical to many of us that I hesitate mentioning it. But it is commonsensical to all but the Marxists out there, who won’t believe it anyway. That factor is whether a nation was communist or not:

Virtually all societies that experienced communist rule show relatively low levels of subjective well-being, even when compared with societies at a much lower economic level, such as India, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. Those societies that experienced communist rule for a relatively long time show lower levels than those that experienced it only since World War II.

Religion also plays a role, especially Protestantism. The author’s show that:

Virtually all historically Protestant societies show relatively high levels of subjective well being. A similar effect persists today in countries (the United States being an exception) where only small minority of the public regularly attends church. As Max Weber pointed out, Protestant societies were the first to industrialize, and although economic development now has spread throughout the world, Protestant societies still are relatively wealthy in large part because of this early lead.

Now for the most relevant part. Subject well-being is critical to the stability of a nation’s political institutions and particularly the stability of democracy. The authors measure freedom using the Freedom House annual freedom ratings (here), which they added together for 1981to 1988. Since the ratings summed for both civil liberties and political rights for a nation for a year vary from 2 to 14, with 2 being the freest, they subtracted the summed ratings for a nation from the highest total rating to reverse the freedom scale. This way so the highest total rating is the freest. They then plotted freedom against the percent of a nation’s people happy and satisfied with their life. It is below (click it to enlarge)

The correlation between well-being and freedom (liberal democracies, in effect) is .78. This is liner. The curvilinear (polynomial or logged correlation would be higher, since it would account for the slight sag in the middle of the distribution) of a number of partially free nations, some being electoral democracies such as Mexico and Turkey. Although the plot seems to imply that freedom is the cause of well-being (it can’t be the other way around), the author’s believe that this is in question, and that other factors may better account for well-being.

So, they did a multiple regression of well being against measures of a nation’s economic development, whether it was historically rule by Protestant elites of not, its years under communist rule, and its measure of freedom. These variables account for 80 percent of the variation in well being, a remarkable fit. They then removed independent variables with low significance in stages to achieve of fit of 78 percent of the variance with three significant variables in the order of their significance: GNP per capita, years under communist rule, and freedom. Aside from applying sample tests of significance to a universe of cases, a problem with their analysis, is the high multicollinearity among these three variables (on this problem, see my blog here). Without eliminating this intercorrelation, it is impossible from this regression alone to determine what variables are dominant.

They conclude:

These findings in no way refute the evidence that genetic factors play an important role in subjective well-being; we find that evidence compelling. But these findings do indicate that genetic factors are only part of the story. Happiness levels vary cross-culturally. Since cultures are constructed by human beings, this suggests that the pursuit of happiness is not completely futile. Genes may play a crucial role, but beliefs and values also are important. Our findings also indicate that varying levels of well-being are closely linked with a society’s political institutions: sharp declines in a society’s level of well-being can lead to the collapse of the social and political system; while high levels of well-being contribute to the survival and flourishing of democratic institutions.

We now know that a nation’s past communism, economic development, and freedom are closely related to well being. We still don’t know whether it is freedom that is the strongest factor. That it has the highest correlation with well being suggests that it is, but a proper analysis of this has yet to be done. I will do it, and give the conclusions here.


see the regression of human security on freedom


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