Harry, Meghan, and the importance of freedom for finding happiness

There have been few royal couples in the world quite like the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, better known to the world as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. When the two married in 2018, many recognized that it was a union that would have been unthinkable when Queen Elizabeth II began her reign in 1952 — that of a British prince to a divorced, American-born actor of mixed African-American and Caucasian ancestry.

Yet even in 2018, the idea that the two would step down as “working royals” to live first in Canada and shortly thereafter the United States as half-royals and half-celebrities seemed far-fetched. But they did.

On Sunday, Mar. 7, the couple appeared on prime-time North American television with interviewer Oprah Winfrey to discuss the circumstances of their departure from royal life.

I was one of the many millions who watched that interview. While there were certainly many who were quick to criticize the couple on the grounds of not upholding the duty-focused traditions of the British royal family, there were many others who felt sympathy for their choice — and I was one of them.

My sympathy arose from my longtime interest in the predictors of happiness; that is, the choices that people can make that increase their probability of enjoying a happy life. I know from experience that one of the strongest predictors of a person’s happiness is how much freedom of choice and control they have over their circumstances.

To illustrate this, let’s consider the World Values Survey, a worldwide research project meant to better understand the differences between the nations. In the survey’s latest 2017-2020 version, they asked 1,794 British adults* hundreds of questions, two of which were: Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, not very happy or not at all happy? and Please use this scale where 1 means “none at all” and 10 means “a great deal” to indicate how much freedom of choice and control you feel you have over the way your life turns out.

Among the 960 respondents who saw themselves having a strong sense of choice and control over their lives, based on an “8” or higher on that ten-point scale, 54 percent said they were very happy with their lives, and another 44 percent said they were quite happy. Only two percent said they were unhappy with their lives.

Among the 752 respondents who answered the freedom question in the “4” to “7” range, only 27 percent described themselves as very happy with their lives, though 64 percent were at least quite happy.

Among the 72 respondents who rated their freedom of choice and control as “3” or lower, just 18 percent described themselves as very happy, while 40 percent said they were quite happy. The largest number, however — 44 percent — said they were not very or not at all happy.

The relationship between freedom and happiness is well documented. A 2014 article published in the Psychology of Well-Being journal noted that “[p]sychological freedom is most strongly related to happiness in rich nations,” and that this sense of freedom helped explain why happiness levels tended to be higher in Finland than in France.

By “psychological freedom”, authors Gaël Brulé and Ruut Veenhoven of Erasmus University in the Netherlands meant:

Psychological freedom is a lack of inner restrictions for seizing opportunities to choose. There are several such inhibitions and we do have data on the prevalence of some of the inhibitions in nations.

A first inner constraint is low self esteem. If you do not feel good about yourself, you will be less apt to take control . . . A second psychological restraint is acquiescence, that is, a tendency to agree with what other people say. This trait is measured using ‘yes-saying’ to survey questions and is commonly used as an indicator of response style. However, a strong tendency to agree to any question can also be seen as a ‘lack of guts’, i.e. a lack of psychological freedom.

Why are Finns more psychologically free than the French? They go on to explain:

Socialization naturally comes to mind. Socialization is deeply embedded in a culture and involves several aspects. The first is parental rearing. When asked about what are the important values to teach a child, French parents, for instance, tend to be keener to answer “obedience” than their Finnish counterparts, 35% in France versus 28% in Finland. Finnish parents tend to value much more “independence”, 57% in Finland versus 24% in France. We can imagine this has an influence on the psychological freedom for the inhabitants of rich countries.

They also note that teaching styles say a great deal about psychological freedom:

In horizontal teaching, children are encouraged to work in groups and self-motivate, in the vertical teaching lecturing and note taking is favoured. France has the most vertical teaching system whereas the Finnish system appears among the most horizontal ones.

And finally that whether a society has historically been organized in a hierarchical or egalitarian manner also matters:

Another possible explanation for the disparity in psychological freedom is religion. Protestantism dominates in Finland and Catholicism in France. Several studies have shown that Catholicism tends to foster hierarchical relations. The church is hierarchical in itself with its many different levels, pope, bishops, priests, monks, etc., that is led from the top down and where there is little room for interpretation. Protestantism, in contrast, sees less need for intermediaries between the believer and God and leaves the believer more freedom. Thus, the Catholic’s “top-down approach” will create less psychological freedom than the Protestant’s “bottom-up approach”. This viewpoint is explored in detail in Brulé and Veenhoven ([2012]).

From this, it’s easy to understand why life as members of a royal family might have turned into an unbearably unhappy existence for Harry and Meghan, prompting them to break away while at a still relatively young age.

It’s a life that tends to be cruel to those who express their own opinions or who have strong personalities of their own. Monarchy as an institution tends to value obedience over independence, as we’ve learned from the consequences of Harry and Meghan’s own assertion of independence. And the monarchy is all about hierarchy, right down to the first-born getting first rights to the throne, the strict protocols about bowing or curtsying to the Queen, and the famous rule of not speaking to royalty until they have spoken to you first.

So let Harry and Meghan enjoy their freedom. There’s a good chance they will have happier lives for it. Let’s set the rest of the world’s royals free, too.

And remember this: one of the best happiness-inducing gifts you can bestow on others is to allow and even encourage their freedom. Set them free from family or cultural expectations that might limit their options, from fear of gossip or “keeping up appearances”, from the trained habit of people-pleasing. And if you’re needing a little more happiness yourself, look for opportunities in your life to break free.

* – I’m using Britain here as it was the country that the Sussexes departed from. Totals do not sum to 1,794 due to a small number of respondents who said “don’t know” or who declined to respond.

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

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