We all value freedom, and according to a study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, there is a link between freedom and happiness: “One of the reasons for the political pursuit of freedom is the belief that this will add to greater happiness for a greater number of citizens. The common-sense theory behind this belief is that life will be more satisfying if we can live the way we want.”
Of course, there have to be some limits to freedom. For example, we must stop at traffic lights, not enter other people’s houses without permission, and children’s ability to choose must sometimes be constrained in their best interests.
But what can be said about the relationship between freedom and happiness among citizens in different nations, from the poorest to the wealthiest, some of whom enjoy more freedom than others? In this study, researchers examined the effect of different grades of freedom in nations on the happiness of people who live there, using published reports that are archived in the World Database of Happiness. The database has 8479 reports on 172 nations and 3757 reports on 2454 regions and cities within nations.
The researchers define freedom as the possibility to choose, and happiness as the subjective enjoyment of life as a whole (i.e. “life satisfaction.”) Lead author of the study Amanina Abdur Rahman—PhD researcher at Monash University, Malaysia—explained to Thrive Global that in society today, people are demanding more freedom, such as freedom of expression. “More and more young and older people alike are using social media to express their views on current affairs,” he said. “Does this rise in freedom have a positive impact on the happiness of societies, or has it reached a point where it makes some people happy, but negatively affects other?” Rahman gave an example of how expressing hatred of one group online, for instance, can adversely affect the happiness of that group’s members.
When the researchers considered what kind of freedom is the most conducive to happiness, they found that economic freedom is the most consistent in establishing a significant positive relationship to happiness, and that the same applied, for the most part, to political freedom. However, they also found that the positive relationship between economic freedom and happiness is stronger for poor nations than it is for wealthy nations. According to the researchers, “This indicates that economic freedom only substantially improves subjective well-being for developing nations. In developed nations, which are usually characterized by high levels of economic freedom, more economic freedom adds little to average happiness.”
The researchers also asked whether there is too much freedom in the freest countries of the world: might there be a pattern of diminishing returns? They found that in nations with high levels of freedom there was evidence of a positive relationship between freedom—economic, political and personal—and happiness. “Overall, these findings show that even among the countries with the highest levels of freedom, the level of freedom is still not too high, as freedom still has a positive association with happiness,” the researchers write. “This indicates that the freest countries are not (yet) too free from a happiness perspective.” One possible explanation for this, the researchers speculate, is “that people have become more educated and cultures have also become more individualistic, giving them the ability to cope with increasing freedom. As a result, the high levels of freedom have not adversely affected people’s subjective well-being.”
Rahman said, “We find that at this point in time, the benefits of freedom, in terms of the happiness of nations, exceeds any adverse effects freedom may have.”