A study based on a survey of thousands of people from 123 countries reveals the universal needs that make us happy
What are the ingredients for happiness? It's a question that has been addressed time and again, and now a study based on the first-ever globally representative poll on well-being has some answers about whether or not a pioneering theory is actually correct.
The theory in question is the psychologist Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs," a staple of Psychology 101 courses that was famously articulated in 1954. It breaks down the path to happiness in an easy-to-digest list: Earthly needs, such as food and safety, are considered essential, since they act as the groundwork that makes it possible to pursue loftier desires, such as love, respect, and self-actualization (the realization of one's full potential).
The problem is, Maslow's theory remained a theory. Though it gained popularity, scientific psychologists largely ignored it. "They thought the needs were too inborn and universal," says Ed Diener, the author of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, "and that the idea of self-actualization was too fuzzy. They started to believe everything is learned and due to socialization."
To find proof that Maslow's theory translated into real life, Diener, a University of Illinois psychologist and senior scientist for the Gallup Organization, helped design the Gallup World Poll, a landmark survey on well-being with 60,865 participants from 123 countries that was conducted from 2005 to 2010. Respondents answered questions about six needs that closely resemble those in Maslow's model: basic needs (food, shelter); safety; social needs (love, support); respect; mastery; and autonomy. They also rated their well-being across three discrete measures: life evaluation (a person's view of his or her life as a whole), positive feelings (day-to-day instances of joy or pleasure), and negative feelings (everyday experiences of sorrow, anger, or stress). Finally, Diener analyzed the poll data with fellow University of Illinois psychology professor Louis Tay for a study in the current edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The results are mixed. Maslow rightly saw that there are human needs that apply regardless of culture, but his ordering of these needs was not right on target. "Although the most basic needs might get the most attention when you don't have them," Diener explains, "you don't need to fulfill them in order to get benefits [from the others]." Even when we are hungry, for instance, we can be happy with our friends. "They're like vitamins," Diener says on how the needs work independently. "We need them all."
The study's methodical investigation of both day-to-day positive and negative feelings and overall life evaluation uncovered novel nuances as well. As it turns out, the needs that are most linked with everyday satisfaction are interpersonal ones, such as love and respect. Our troubles, conversely, relate most to lack of esteem, lack of freedom, and lack of nourishment. Only when we look back on the quality of our lives thus far do basic needs become significant indicators for well-being.
For Diener, the implications for public policymakers are clear. Since each of Maslow's needs correlates with certain components of happiness, he says, "all the needs are important all the time. Our leaders need to think about them from the outset, otherwise they will have no reason to address social and community needs until food and shelter are available to all."
University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin Seligman, who says the study might be a breakthrough, adds: "Governments should take these measures seriously and hold themselves accountable for public policy changes for the well-being of their citizens." Focus away from monetary measures should be considered, especially in light of Diener and Tay's finding that income has little impact on day-to-day happiness and is significant for well-being only in so far as it allows for basic needs to be met. Seligman argues in his book Flourish:
...[G]ross domestic product should no longer be the only serious index of how well a nation is doing. It is not just the alarming divergence between quality of life and GDP that warrants this conclusion. Policy itself follows from what is measured, and if all that is measured is money, all policy will be about getting more money.
Perhaps, as Seligman suggests, governments could take their cue from Bhutan, a nation that consistently ranks high in "gross national happiness," if not GDP. University of British Columbia economist John Helliwell points to the recent riots in London, where social connections had ostensibly frayed, to illustrate the dangers of an unhappy citizenry. Such anti-social acts, he says, should prompt world leaders to adopt the recently passed UN resolution to make happiness a primary goal for global development and to consider Diener's model. "It shows clearly the importance in all societies of human connections and social supports, something that's been ignored in recent years," he says.
Indeed, Maslow's theory has led psychologists to focus on the self over the social for decades, what with self-actualization as the height of human motivation. Diener and Tay's revised model, however, aims to strike a balance between the pursuit of happiness as the end goal and the fulfillment of both personal and social goals to get there. "Maslow got right that there are universal human needs beyond the physiological needs that everyone recognizes," Diener says. "But it turns out people are inherently social. We are called the social animal now."
Images: STR New/Reuters and Debra Bolgla