Social tolerance, freedom of choice and faith among keys to happiness, say researchers

If you’ve ever been a university student, it’s easy to develop an aversion to academic journals. Because of the meticulous standards required  for publication — everything has to be carefully worded and backed up by evidence — these articles are not as “punchy” as the articles you’d typically see in a newspaper or magazine.

It’s too bad it has to be that way. Sometimes these journal articles contain interesting bits of information that don’t make the news.

In 2008, four academics from three universities in the U.S. and Europe combined forces in a quest to find out why some people are happier with their lives than others.

To do this, they looked at how people answered a standard question about their happiness with life in 52 countries around the world, as well as how they answered other questions about their lives.

Some of their more notable findings:

1. Economic development — such as rising incomes — plays a role in boosting happiness. However, money was not everything. Three other things that go hand-in-hand with a happier life:

  • Social tolerance (“living in a tolerant social environment is conducive to happiness for everyone”)
  • Religious involvement (which “provides a sense of predictability and security” according to the authors)
  • Democracy (“the citizens of democracies tend to be happier than those of authoritarian societies”)

2. The biggest increase in happiness can be found among those who move out of poverty and into what some might call “the middle class”. But once people reached the middle class, moving up into wealth had little effect.

3. Freedom of choice — the ability to shape one’s own destiny — also tends to make people happier. Yet, the researchers also found that freedom of choice is tied to the three points discussed above.

  • Those who are hard up for money or up to their eyeballs in debt often have fewer choices in life than those who are financially secure.
  • Those who live in democracies tend to feel that they have more choices than those who live in more dictatorial countries.
  • Those who live in socially tolerant countries are more likely to feel in control of their destiny than those who live in less tolerant places.

The last two points are backed up by the fact that people who live in countries with low levels of corruption and where men and women are treated as equals are more likely to say that they’re happy than those who don’t.

Another interesting point that the researchers uncovered: The “good old days” might not have been as good as some people think.

They uncovered this when they looked at archived data showing how happy Americans were with their lives, dating back to 1946.

From 1946 — when Americans were still euphoric about the end of World War II one year earlier — there was a modest (but significant) decline in their happiness that continued until 1979. The trend bottomed out that year, with American happiness showing steady, modest improvements from 1980 through to at least 2006.

The steepest increases in happiness in recent years, however, have been in India, Ireland, Mexico, Puerto Rico and South Korea.

Argentina, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden have also been on the right track according to the research.

The countries that have been on the wrong track: Austria, Belgium, the U.K., and western Germany.

Based on these findings, what can governments do to make people happier? (These conclusions are mine, not theirs.)

  • Focus on getting people out of poverty, and on preventing the middle class from falling into poverty.
  • Embrace and promote social tolerance; no good comes from making people feel marginalized for being different.
  • Don’t devalue the positive effect that religion can have on peoples’ lives (and I write this as an agnostic!) Create a climate where people of all theological persuasions can feel at ease.
  • Don’t tolerate corruption, and foster a culture of openness. People have a right to know what their government is up to, and to have access to decision makers without having to pay $1,000 per plate for the privilege.

Want to read the whole journal article? You can find it here:

Development, Freedom, and Rising Happiness: A Global Perspective (1981–2007) by Ronald Inglehart, Roberto Foa, Christopher Peterson and Christian Welzel.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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