Societies That Promote Openness And Tolerance Are Happier, According To New Research

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In every society, there exists a certain degree of trade-off between openness and privacy. Some countries push societal openness to the extreme. In Sweden, for example, all tax returns are publicly available. In other words, if you lived in Sweden and wanted to know how much money your neighbor made last year, all you’d have to do is make a phone call. Other countries, like the United States, have a more tempered view on what should be the appropriate balance between transparency and privacy.

But how does this trade-off impact societal well-being? And, are citizens living in societies that skew toward openness or privacy any more, or less, happy? New research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology sheds light on these interesting questions.

A team of researchers led by Kuba Krys of Kyoto University in Japan examined over 90 countries to test the relationship between societal openness and life satisfaction. They found that citizens living in open societies — such as Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland — were significantly happier than others.

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers examined data from a number of publicly available data sources including the World Happiness Report and the World Values Survey. They measured happiness by combining questions on subjective well-being, satisfaction with life, and current happiness. They write, “Drawing from multiple data sources allowed us to minimize bias originating in reliance on a single method.”

To measure societal openness, Krys and her team aggregated individuals’ responses to four items from the World Values Survey: tolerance toward homosexuality, trust toward other people, readiness to sign a petition, and beliefs regarding materialism.

Using these measures, the researchers found a robust positive association between societal openness and happiness. The graph below depicts the strength of the relationship, with less open countries in the left bottom quadrant and more open countries in the top right quadrant.

Which countries ranked highest on societal openness? According to their analysis, the top five most open countries were:

  1. Sweden
  2. Norway
  3. Switzerland
  4. Canada
  5. New Zealand

And, which countries ranked highest on the combined measure of happiness? The top five were:

  1. Switzerland
  2. Canada
  3. Norway
  4. Finland
  5. Sweden

(In case you were wondering, Jordan, Tunisia, and Azerbaijan ranked lowest on societal openness and Ethiopia, Armenia, and Zimbabwe ranked lowest on happiness.)

To avoid the criticism that societal wealth might be producing the observed results (that is, open societies tend to be wealthier which, in turn, makes them happier), the researchers re-ran their analyses controlling for countries’ GDP. Even when accounting for the effects of GDP on happiness, the researchers still found a significant relationship between openness and life satisfaction.

This research is important because it speaks to an ongoing debate regarding the nature of societal happiness. Past research, for instance, has suggested that societies that promote individualism — that is, self-expression and personal autonomy — are more likely to exhibit higher levels of life satisfaction. This work clarifies that relationship; individualistic societies are happier insofar as they promote an open and tolerant society.

The authors conclude, “Up to now some could conclude that individualism […] brings life satisfaction to societies. Here, we document the complex nature of this association and indicate the mechanism responsible for higher declarations of life satisfaction in individualistic societies. Members of societies declare higher life satisfaction if they constitute a specific form of individualism — open society.”

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