Happiness and Values

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The relation between values and happiness is somewhat 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 undermine happiness or well-being.

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

In contrast, numerous cross-sectional studies have demonstrated that materialistic values are negatively correlated with happiness and other well-being variables (see (Burroughs & Rindfleisch, 2002), for a review). But of course, these cross-sectional, correlational studies can not demonstrate that holding materialistic values causes lower well-being. More recent longitudinal studies, however, have been helpful in suggesting that materialistic values and goals predict decreases in well-being over time.

For example, in a year-long study of recent college graduates, (Sheldon, Ryan, Deci and Kasser 2004) found that graduates' endorsement of goals that they believed would help them become rich predicted decreased happiness over the course of a year. Sheldon and his colleagues concluded that inancial success goals seem to undermine happiness regardless of a person's reasons for wanting to be rich.

An additional longitudinal study found a small negative relationship between materialism and life satisfaction in a large sample of college graduates ((Nickerson, Schwartz, Diener, & Kahneman, 2003)). The result was present even after several other variables were controlled. However, the negative relationship between materialism and happiness was moderated by actual financial success. Although most income groups had a negative relationship between materialism and life satisfaction, materialism and life satisfaction were unrelated among people who had incomes that were much higher than average.

In summary, in most cases happiness seems to be more strongly related to whether or not people are fulfilling their values rather than the actual nature of their values. However, there are exceptions. Materialistic values, for example, seem to be toxic to the well-being of many people.


(Burroughs, J. & Rindfleisch, A. 2002). Materialism and well-being: A conflicting values perspective. Journal of Consumer Research, 29, 348-370.

(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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