Yesterday, I created a quiz to help you identify your personal values. Now, I want to objectively discuss how these values relate to happiness, and I shall start with three definitions:
- value = an abstract motivational goal that guides judgments and behavior
- happiness = subjective well-being = life satisfaction + positive affect
- egalitarian = sociopolitical state of a country that promotes tolerance, equality, social security, and welfare investments (high in Sweden and France, low in Russia and Romania)
Sortheix and Schwartz (2017) recently published a study on how values relate to well-being and how socioeconomic factors mediate this relationship. After analyzing data from 32 countries and 121,495 participants in face-to-face interviews, this is what they found:
- Values that relate positively to happiness are
- self-focused, open to change, and anxiety-free (Self-Direction, Stimulation, Hedonism), especially in less egalitarian cultures, or
- tribally prosocial (Benevolence), but not so much in less egalitarian cultures.
- Values that relate negatively to happiness are
- society-focused, conservative, and anxiety-avoiding (Tradition, Conformity, Security), especially in less egalitarian cultures, or
- society-dependent (Power), but not so much in less egalitarian cultures.
In other words, values that are more oriented toward personal growth and self-expansion promote happiness, whereas values that are more oriented toward society and self-protection undermine happiness. In less egalitarian cultures, these links are particularly strong because a self-affirming, self-enhancing focus on oneself becomes even more important the less support one can expect from society.
Society-focused values undermine happiness because they depend on external forces such as successful cooperation and continuous coordination with others. Self-focused values, on the other hand, satisfy the intrinsic needs for autonomy, challenge, and pleasure independent of others. Of course, it could also be that depressed people simply tend to place more value on things outside of them, whereas happy people tend to focus more on internal factors. I guess the causation is reciprocal here.
Benevolence is an other-focused value, too. But being kind, helping, and caring for family, friends, and close others typically has positive consequences that overpower the negative aspects of its external character, especially since the cooperative behaviors motivated by Benevolence are more likely to succeed than those motivated by Conformity and Security.
The self-protective value of Power, which motivates overcoming threats to one’s social status, implies a need for control and a strong sense of anxiety, which neutralizes its positive self-enhancing aspects. In addition, dominance, wealth, influence, and social status all depend on external factors and may lead to more negative interpersonal relationships. This would explain why the Will to Power is linked to depressive symptoms. However, it could well be that depressed people simply tend to have a greater longing for social power. Again, probably both is true.
Finally, a harsh, unstable life in a constraining, anxiety-provoking non-egalitarian culture reverses the benefits of Benevolence and the drawbacks of Power, thus encouraging competition and competitive values. Just think about the drive for dominance and “being alpha” in poor, lower-class neighborhoods. People with that drive will have an advantage, function more effectively, and be more happy in their environment, especially if they invest in their personal advancement.
In conclusion, the study shows that personal values are neither completely dependent on nor completely isolated from a person’s environment. Therefore, it makes sense to speak of a true self that has a True Will, even if that will is dynamic.
Sortheix, F. M. & Schwartz, S. H. (2017). Values that Underlie and Undermine Well-Being: Variability Across Countries. European Journal of Personality 31, pp. 187-201, doi: 10.1002/per.2096.