Survey of people living in small, rural communities around the world suggests income not key to happiness

Global polls typically show that people in industrialized countries where incomes are relatively high report greater levels of satisfaction with life than those in low-income countries.

But now the first large-scale survey to look at happiness in small, non-industrialized communities living close to nature paints quite a different picture.

Looking at happiness in non-industrialized settings

Led by McGill University and the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB), the study, which was published recently in PNAS, surveyed close to 3,000 people in 19 small communities around the world. Some of the communities self-identify as Indigenous, and all depend on nature for their livelihoods. The team discovered that even though the respondents have very little money just 64% of the households surveyed had any cash income), many are leading happy, satisfying lives, at levels of happiness comparable to those in high-income countries. This is the case despite the fact that many of these communities have histories of marginalization and oppression.

Good news for the environment

“This is good news for the environment because the results provide strong evidence that resource-intensive economic growth is not required to achieve high levels of subjective well-being,” says Eric Galbraith, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at McGill University, a researcher at ICTA-UAB and the lead author of the study.

High levels of life satisfaction despite low levels of cash

Survey participants, in countries from Fiji to Zimbabwe and China, to name just a few, were asked to rate their level of satisfaction with life on a scale of 0 – 10. The average level of life satisfaction across the communities was close to seven out of ten, and four of the 19 sites scored over eight out of ten (figures that are comparable to those from other polls for wealthy Scandinavian countries) – although some communities rated their level of life satisfaction as low as five out of ten.

Correlation between income and life satisfaction not universal

“Our research shows that the strong correlation frequently observed between income and life satisfaction is not universal and proves that wealth – as generated by industrialized economies – is not fundamentally required for humans to lead happy lives,” adds Victoria Reyes-Garcia, ICREA researcher at ICTA-UAB and the senior author of the study.

Need for caution about associating happiness with economic growth

Measuring national and global levels of life satisfaction is a relatively new area of research, although the results are playing an increasingly important role in setting policy agendas. The first World Happiness Report, with material drawn from 150 mainly industrialized nations, was published as recently as 2012.

“Economic growth is often prescribed as a sure way of increasing the well-being of people in low-income countries, and global surveys in recent decades have supported this strategy by showing that people in high-income countries tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction than those in low-income countries,” says Christopher Barrington-Leigh, one of the study’s co-authors and an associate professor at McGill University, in the Department of Equity, Ethics and Policy and the Bieler School of Environment.

He suggests, however, that there is a need for caution when it comes to associating well-being with economic growth.

“This strong correlation might suggest that only in rich societies can people be happy. But, because we have only been quantifying the quality of life experience for a few decades, and with a limited set of populations, we need to make sure that we have not been over-generalizing from the patterns we saw at first.”

Exploring the sources of happiness

The researchers highlight the fact that, although they now know that people with very little money in nature-based societies often report high levels of life satisfaction, they do not know why.

“Prior work would suggest that family and social support and relationships, as well as spirituality and connections to nature play an important role in this happiness. But it is possible that the important factors differ significantly between societies or, instead, that a small subset of factors dominate everywhere,” says Galbraith. “I would hope that, by learning more about what makes life satisfying in these diverse communities, it might help many others to lead more satisfying lives while at the same time addressing the sustainability crisis.”

Barrington-Leigh adds, “It has become very clear that we are a very social species, and that the nature of our interactions with other people and living things are enormously powerful determinants of how we see our lives, overall. Therefore, we might imagine that there are quite different kinds of lives from the ones we pursue now which could also be highly fulfilling.”

High life satisfaction reported among small-scale societies with low incomes” by E. Galbraith et al was published in PNAS