Happiness and Values

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The relation between values and happiness is controversial. Relativists claim that people will be happy as long as their life is consistent with their values, independent of the nature of their values. Humanists claim that some values are more fundamental and important for all individuals (e.g., Maslow's need hierarchy). To the extent that people's value preferences deviate from those consistent with human nature, they are likely pursue goals that do not lead to happiness, making them less happy.

Empirical Evidence An early review by (Veenhoven 1984) found very weak correlations between value preferences and happiness. He also noted that this finding "caused much surprise" (p. 323)

In contrast, a more widely cited cross-sectional study concluded that materialistic values are negatively correlated with happiness (Kasser & Ryan, 1993). Of course, a cross-sectional study cannot prove causality. Thus, it is not clear that material value preferences caused lower happiness in this study. It is equally possible, that a common third variable (e.g., poverty) caused lower happiness and a more materialistic value orientation. Another problem of this study was the use of questionable indicators of happiness (e.g., vitality).

A more recent study examined the relation between materialism (importance of financial success) and happiness longitudinally in a large sample of US students ((Nickerson, Schwartz, Diener, & Kahneman, 2003)). This study found a very weak negative relation between materialism and life satisfaction after controlling for several other variables (r = .04). Furthermore, the effect was moderated by actual financial success. Valuing money had virtually no negative effects on the happiness of people who were actually financially succesful. In contrast, it had a larger effect on the happiness of individuals with low income. This finding is more consistent with the relativistic view of happiness that the influence of values on happiness depends on one's actual life cirumstances.

Conclusion Human nature is not universal. People differ in their value preferences and are likely to pursue different goals in their lives. Happiness depends on the achievement of these goals rather than on the nature of these goals.


(Kasser T. & Ryan, R.M. 1993). A dark side of the American dream: Correlates of financial success as a central life aspiration. �Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 410-422.

(Nickerson, C., Schwarz, N., Diener, E., & Kahneman, D. 2003). Zeroing on the dark side of the American Dream: A closer look at the negative consequences of the goal for financial success. Psychological Science, 14(6), 531-536.

(Veenhoven, R. 1984). Conditions of happiness. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company. [excellent book on happiness]

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