Autonomy & Freedom Make You Happier Than Money

“Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish have been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.” – Cree Indian Proverb

According to a recent study published by the American Psychological Association (APA), “freedom and personal autonomy are more important to people’s well-being than money.”  Researchers at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand conducted a meta-analysis of data from over 63 countries to find an answer to the question, “What is more important for well-being, providing people with money or providing them with choices and autonomy?”

Psychologists Ronald Fischer and Diana Boer looked at studies involving use of three psychological tests: the General Health Questionnaire, the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, and the Maslach Burnout Inventory.  The total sample of individuals involved was 420,599 people from 63 countries spanning nearly 40 years.

Until now, no one study has examined the two particular constructs these researchers were interested in: wealth and individualism.  Fischer and Boer explained that, “Across all three studies and four data sets, we observed a very consistent and robust finding that societal values of individualism were the best predictors of well-being … Furthermore, if wealth was a significant predictor alone, this effect disappeared when individualism was entered.”

While money certainly does have a significant effect on happiness, this effect plateaus once one’s income reaches the level of being able to fulfill basic needs and wants.  In fact, a previous study published by the APA explained that the effect of wealth on happiness plateaus at a $75,000/year income.  Beyond this level, money no longer had a direct impact on happiness.

Fischer and Boer continued, “These increases in well-being with higher individualism, however, leveled off toward the extreme ends of individualism, indicating that too much autonomy may not be beneficial … but the very strong overall pattern was that individualism is associated with better well-being overall,” they wrote. This means that in some of the most individualistic societies (such as the United States), the greater independence from family and loved ones appears to go together with increased levels of stress and ill-being.”

What do you see as the implications of this study for your own life?  Do you value your own freedom and personal autonomy over wealth?  If having freedom and personal autonomy are some of your deeply held values, how can you live in a such a way as to be sure that your actions do not indicate that you value wealth more?  It can be easy to fall into the trap of chasing money in the hopes that it will fill a void where happiness should be.  Once we see this as an illusion (backed up by science, no less), then we free ourselves to focus our lives more on the things that truly matter.

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Fischer, R., & Boer, D. (2011). What is more important for national well-being: money or autonomy? A meta-analysis of well-being, burnout and anxiety across 63 societies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (101)1, 164-184.

Featured image: Money! by Tracy O / CC BY-SA 2.0

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