Societies with Little Money Are among the Happiest on Earth – Scientific American

June 28, 2024
6 min read
Societies with Little Money Are among the Happiest on Earth
Wealth and well-being go together in many studies, but certain communities complicate this link
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You can’t buy happiness, as greeting cards and inspirational posters tell us, and the most important things in life are free. Yet the World Happiness Report, which is released every spring with widespread media coverage, consistently shows that the inhabitants of wealthy countries are at the top of its lists. What’s more, decades of psychological research have shown that individual wealth is strongly correlated with reported life satisfaction. And although it is often said that this effect is saturated at some level beyond which greater wealth has no effect, recent work in the U.S. has suggested that superwealthy people do actually tend to rate their life satisfaction higher than those who are just moderately wealthy.
So are the greeting cards or the statistical correlations right? Do human beings fundamentally need to be rich to be truly happy with their life?
To me, this perennial question is both fascinating and important. As a scientist studying the interplay between human behavior and sustainability issues, I would like to know whether the pursuit of greater wealth is truly required for humans to thrive. After all, the push to ensure economic growth is deeply rooted in industrialized societies. Many people have come to accept serious environmental consequences, including climate change, rather than take actions that might threaten their economy. As a result, our industrial civilization now threatens the future of all complex life on Earth. Are we on this self-destructive path because human happiness depends on making ourselves richer?
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To better understand this issue, I joined forces with an anthropologist, Viki Reyes-García of the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Most of the work on happiness to date has involved Western societies that are not representative of the broader human experience. We wanted to assess the happiness of people who had less need for money.
Reyes-García was preparing a large team to undertake an unprecedented survey of small-scale societies that was focused predominantly on understanding the impacts of climate change among people living in diverse settings on five continents. Many people in these groups identify as Indigenous, and all rely primarily on their local ecosystems for their livelihood, with little to no use of money on a day-to-day basis. We aimed to ask nearly 3,000 participants: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life on a scale from 0 to 10?” By asking the same question that has been used in many other global surveys, we’d be able to make a direct comparison to industrialized societies.
Visiting the communities was difficult, given that all are quite remote. Some were in South American jungles, others in arid African grasslands and still others in mountainous regions of South Asia. We translated surveys into local languages and conducted them through in-person interviews of roughly one hour in length, using randomly selected inhabitants from more than 100 villages. Because most of the people surveyed did not have a regular income, we estimated average monetary income from the value of household possessions that had been purchased (rather than made locally). For most of the communities, this indicated an average income of a few dollars per person per day.
The survey showed that, far from being miserable, the people in these small-scale communities report being just as satisfied as people in most countries of the world—despite having very little money. Although there was a lot of variation among interviewees, some communities reported very high levels of satisfaction (above 8 out of 10) that exceeded the national average in many wealthy countries. Our main finding indicates that despite having just a few dollars per day, many of these people are very happy, in their own estimation.
So how do we reconcile that finding with the many other studies that have consistently shown that people with more money tend to report being happier than those with less? The inhabitants of rich countries today enjoy a higher level of material wealth than anyone in history—how can it be that the members of some of these small-scale societies report being even more satisfied overall?
To begin with, our findings point to the danger of putting too much importance on a correlation, such as the one found between money and happiness. Money is an easy predictor to quantify, so it’s understandable that it’s studied frequently, but many other factors affect life satisfaction. In fact, we also found highly significant correlations between satisfaction and imputed wealth in the small-scale societies we visited, but it was an extremely small effect compared with other features of the societies. And as shown by a finding called the Easterlin paradox, increases in a society’s wealth over time do not consistently lead to increases in life satisfaction across that society.
These other features clearly matter a lot. Prior work has pointed, most importantly, to the role of social relationships. As deeply social animals, humans are tightly attuned to the security of their position within society, including the support they can count on from others. This primarily comes from the strength of interpersonal relationships and an assessment of one’s social standing. But social relations do not necessarily go together with wealth. What’s more, although the communities we studied have little money, they are not poor in the sense of lacking basic necessities, and many of the people in these societies spend their days in close contact with natural surroundings, something many studies suggest benefits well-being.
In addition, when it comes to the World Happiness Report specifically, its particular choice of survey question may contribute to wealthy countries topping its lists. Unlike our approach, which asked people to quantify overall life satisfaction, that report uses the “Cantril ladder.” Respondents imagine a ladder with their ideal life at the top and then decide on which rung they currently stand. Recent work has shown that the Cantril ladder tends to make people focus on their income relative to others—more than the basic life satisfaction question that we and other research groups used. As a result, the World Happiness Report may be telling us more about the degree to which people are satisfied with their income rather than their satisfaction with life overall. Another factor to consider—though it comes with additional nuances—is the lessening of well-being that comes from social comparison in highly inequitable societies. In general, the communities we studied have less financial inequality than many wealthy industrialized nations today.
So what does this mean for those of us living in industrialized countries? For most of us, money is required to meet basic needs, which are undoubtedly an essential foundation for happiness. Many low-income countries suffer from widespread corruption and intense inequality, with large numbers of people living in low-quality urban settings where access to basic facilities such as clean water, sewage and lighting is scarce. In a monetized society, money is essential, and having more of it usually helps.
But our findings underscore that fulfilling these basic needs—to the point where humans can lead a happy or satisfying existence—requires much less material wealth than industrialized societies are pursuing at present. And that’s good news for our planet. As an analysis published last year suggests, it is possible for all nations to meet their basic needs, including those related to education, health care and mobility, while achieving climate-stabilization goals.
My work with Reyes-García and our colleagues suggests that many countries and communities may be able to learn from the successful features of small-scale societies to improve aspects that are weak or missing. The Western focus on the individual, the moral acceptance of self-interested material accumulation and the increasing disconnection with other humans as people spend more time in the virtual world may all undermine happiness. It may be that at this point in history, the surest way to increase satisfaction with life in wealthy countries is to forget about economic growth and focus on growing a shared humanity. That shift might also be the key to securing the future of complex and beautiful life on Earth.
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This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
Eric Galbraith is a professor at McGill University. He studies the human-Earth system, bringing together approaches from natural and social sciences to provide new insights on global-scale challenges in the hope of improving human well-being.
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