As Life Situations Change, So Too Do Values

That happiness does not lie in money alone is something that Professor Ronald Inglehart can prove scientifically. For 30 years, the American political scientist has been studying global value systems. What has emerged is a clear trend toward self-expression.

By Peter Hossli (text) and Johannes Krömer (photo)

inglehart.jpgRonald Inglehart instilled an important value in his children for their path through life: “Think about others.” Of course, it was important for them to work hard at times and to brush their teeth every day. “But only those who take into account the concerns of others can become really happy.”

He should know. After all, no one knows more about values and their meaning than Ronald Inglehart. The American political scientist is virtually obsessed with asking people what they really want. “Values are about what motivates us, and what we would like to have,” says Inglehart, an affable -looking fellow whose face is dominated by a friendly smile. In professorial fashion, he is sitting in front of a crammed set of bookshelves in his cramped, sunlit office at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, one hour from Detroit. It is from here that he runs the World Values Survey, a network of 180 social scientists conducting surveys in 95 countries.

Between them, they assess the values of around 80 percent of the world’s population. “To know how others experience the world” is what Inglehart says he is after. “As a kid I always had this desire to slip into other people’s bodies so that I could see what they saw.” Now this childhood fantasy has been replaced by questionnaires. Every five years for the last three decades he has dispatched these around the world. This global and oft-repeated comparison highlights trends and changes. Universal values become apparent, such as a love of art or religious faith. “Everyone likes seeing beautiful things and listening to music,” observes Inglehart. “Everyone wants to understand where they come from and where they are going.”

There Is an Enormous Bandwidth of Values

Universal aspects are the exception. When Inglehart compares countries and continents, what emerges is “an enormous bandwidth of values.” For example, whereas the relationship between the richest US state of Connecticut and the poorest US state of Mississippi is 2 to 1 in terms of wealth, the difference between the richest and poorest countries of the world is 1 to 100. “People who are hungry develop an entirely different strategy and thus different values from those people who are well-fed.” Those who are physically threatened by rebels see protection for themselves and their family as the most important value. People who can turn the heating on when it gets cold and turn on a lamp when night falls can afford to devote their time to other things than basic survival. As life situations change, so too do values – this is the thesis that forms the very heart of Inglehart’s research. What interests him is who sets what priorities where, and under what circumstances the order of desires can change.

Values Are Impacted by Financial Status

Two factors bring about change. On the one hand Inglehart cites economic and physical security. The person who has enough to eat and is not threatened can act in a far more independent way and can devote more time to self-expression. Values such as tolerance, democracy and environmental protection replace the values of survival. On the other hand, the type of work a person undertakes defines the nature of their values.

People who cultivate the soil are at the mercy of the weather. Only the intervention of a higher power can affect the matter, which is why religious values play a key part in an agrarian society. When the conveyor belt replaces the plough, central planning takes on God’s role. Industrialization displaces religion and values become more secular. Even more powerful are the marks left by the knowledge society, as Inglehart describes the countries of Western Europe, North America and Japan.

People in these countries are currently subject to a breakneck pace of change, and must continually adapt, which in turn demands innovation and creativity. Self-expression becomes an obligation. To break down the world’s “complex and multifaceted” value systems, Inglehart has developed a simple model with two axes. On the one hand he measures the shift from traditional/religious values to secular values, while on the other he measures the change from survival values to self-expression. Wealthy nations without exception score high values on both axes. People in these countries tend to think in a secular way and are in search of self-expression (see graph).

International Survey Process

Each wave of surveys costs several million dollars to implement. Local opinion research institutions identify 1,500 people to act as a representative segment for each country. Each person surveyed answers between 300 and 400 questions. Inglehart personally travels to as many countries as possible to improve the way the results are classified. This long-term study is financed for the most part by a foundation set up by the Bank of Sweden, and the Dutch foreign ministry currently pays for a survey to be conducted in all
African countries that have no opinion research institutions of their own. This year, Inglehart will survey people in Burkina Faso, Mali, Ethiopia, Zambia and Rwanda for the first time.

Breaking new ground like this is something that pleases the 72-year-old researcher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “Every new country comes up with surprising value systems.” Asked what had surprised him most over the course of his 30-year project, Inglehart replies: “That religion has not died out, but has actually become more important worldwide.” In the early 1970s, all social scientists believed the world was heading in a secular direction. “But we were wrong,” confesses Inglehart. The birth rate of religious women was underestimated. On average, they have five or more children, while their secular counterparts average less than two. Not only is the proportion of “unbelievers” declining, it is also falling in real terms.

It is true that industrialization strengthens the secular trend. This is again being slightly reinforced in knowledge societies. At the same time another form of religious drive is emerging in terms of individual search for meaning away from traditional churches. Those who find self-expression make their own decisions about personal values such as sexuality, abortion and divorce, points out Inglehart. “Such a person chooses their own religion rather than following the dictates of a priest.” Faith now brings not security, but autonomy.

Self-Expression Builds Tolerance

The most important value change of people who have achieved self-expression manifests itself in growing tolerance. Nowhere is this more evident than in the acceptance of homosexuality. Thirty years ago, more than half the people surveyed around the globe by Inglehart responded to the question as to whether gay and lesbian people would ever be accepted with a simple “No.” A number of countries now recognize same-sex marriages. As Inglehart sees it, this underlines how changes in values can often lead to legislative change. “Those who feel secure open up, those who are afraid close themselves off ” – this is how Inglehart explains the trend toward greater tolerance.

He was not surprised to find out that Iraq was cited in a recently completed study as the most hostile country to foreigners. “Iraqis currently feel extremely insecure.” In addition to the increased acceptance of foreigners, gays, and lesbians, Inglehart discerns a growing equality of the sexes. “Men are no longer considered to be better leaders, and are no longer given priority when deciding to whom a job should be given.” As he sees it, the more we move away from industrialized societies toward knowledge societies, the greater the influence of women. US universities are already attended by more women than men. As a result, the value system of women has been turned inside out. When the domain of women was predominantly the house, the stove and the church, women tended to have conservative values. “Today, women think and vote more progressively than men,” says Inglehart. “They are benefiting from change.” As they have become more economically independent, they are finding self-expression.

Does economic security make you happy?

“Happiness is an interplay between what you desire and what you actually have, or between values and experience,” says Inglehart. Here he contradicts those biologists who only consider the feeling of happiness in genetic terms. “Your life situation is what defines happiness,” he continues. Particularly as the differences in the sensation of happiness are much greater between individual countries than they are within any one country. “Those who pursue the genetic argument assume that happy Danes are genetically different to unhappy Russians,” says Inglehart. “It is more a case of Denmark being a free and tolerant society.”

Money Can’t Buy Happiness

It is true that people in rich countries are often happier than those in poor countries, but this is not exclusively the case. Rich people in rich countries are only marginally happier than those who are less rich. “A man who doubles his income does not double his happiness,” points out Inglehart. “Bill Gates may have 10,000 times more money than I do, but he is at most 10 percent happier.” Here the political scientist underlines the old adage that money can’t buy happiness. “It is better to have it than not to have it,” says Inglehart. “But does it lead to continual happiness? No.” Feelings of happiness increase enormously for poor people if they are able to feed their hungry children. Once the standard of living has reached the level of Portugal – Western Europe’s poorest country – there is no longer a correlation between greater income and greater happiness. Increasingly it is friends and family, together with the individual’s personal life, that dictate how content a person is. Only then do issues such as job and income come into play. The level of education and intelligence is particularly important in forming the values of people in wealthy knowledge societies. The widely held view that money makes you happier is a “snare.” “No doubt the first million feels terrific, but only for a while, and those who are still unhappy when they have 10 million are not likely to find it once they have 100 million.”

To Inglehart, it was no coincidence that multi -billionaires like Bill Gates and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have turned to philanthropy. “They are rich, their work has changed the world, and they are now trying to achieve something different in a new field that will make them happy.” Inglehart warns that even billionaires are not totally happy. This is a good thing. “Evolution doesn’t permit it – otherwise we would stagnate and soon die out.”

Happiness Peaks and People Want More

As the marginal utility of newly acquired happiness wears off over time, people set continually higher goals. This drive is most apparent in the US, the richest but not the happiest country. The continual “pursuit of happiness” is even anchored in the wording of the American Declaration of Independence, the document that first established the US in 1776. “It is almost un-American not to continually strive for greater happiness,” points out Inglehart. Yet the happiest people in the world live in Scandinavia and Latin America. Despite their unenviable climate, the people of the northernmost lands in Europe are extremely content. This Inglehart attributes to equitable government and well-functioning institutions. As he points out, the level of tolerance and responsibility toward one’s fellow citizens is greater in these countries than elsewhere. He reaffirms that there is a connection between happiness and democracy. “But democracy does not automatically lead to happiness. In fact, those who are happy are more open to democratic values.”

Latin America is a conundrum. “All Latin-American countries and particularly those of the Caribbean are happier than their wealth would lead one to believe,” says Inglehart. Certainly the weather has a role to play. But more importantly: “People have many more friends and spend a great deal more time with them.” At the bottom end of the happiness scale are the former communist countries, particularly Russia. The collapse of the Soviet Union exacerbated this trend. “With the end of communism the Russian value system fell apart, making people very insecure and unhappy,” says Inglehart. In any case, catastrophes always leave their mark on values. For example, the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, and the ensuing war on terror led to insecurity on a global scale.

Islamic Isolation Apparent After 9/11

While the drive toward self-expression is increasing in most countries, Islam is stagnating. Neither democracy nor tolerance toward women and homosexuals is on the rise in Islamic countries, despite the fact that many of these countries are very rich. Inglehart explains the lack of progress in Islamic countries with the phrase ” the curse of natural resources.” “Anyone sitting on 50 percent of the world’s oil reserves does not need to modernize.” Society can remain trapped in the Middle Ages, as no strong middle class emerges that can urbanize a country and lead to a knowledge society.
The data that Inglehart assesses in his Ann Arbor office gives organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations good indications of how the world might develop.

The professor is optimistic. “Apart from the negative trend of terrorism and the response to it, there is hope.” As he sees it, people worldwide are becoming richer, more secure and happier. In countries where extreme poverty once prevailed, such as China and India, a middle class is emerging. Trade barriers are coming down and capital and technology are on the move, which creates new jobs everywhere. But are people becoming happier? In developed countries in particular, consumption of antidepressants is rising dramatically. Inglehart has no time for the argument that this is a sign of unhappiness, however. “We can afford the pills, so we take them.”