How close is the link between freedom and life satisfaction?

I think individual autonomy should be viewed not just as a factor contributing to human flourishing but as a factor that is integral to it in the same way that good relations with other people and a feeling of competence are also integral to human flourishing. It seems to me that the nature of humans is such that they cannot achieve their individual potential for psychological growth and enjoyment of life unless they have control of their own lives.

That judgment is not beyond dispute. For example, Richard Kraut has suggested that individuals may sometimes benefit from being coerced to prevent them from harming themselves. I considered that argument here.

In this post I want to consider another possible argument against autonomy, namely that some people may prefer to have their autonomy restricted because they have difficulty in coping with a great deal of freedom of choice and control over their lives. There is some experimental evidence that beyond some point an increase in the range of options may make it more difficult for consumers to make choices – they may even prefer not to make a choice if the choice set is too large. Does this mean that people have less satisfaction with their lives when they feel they have a great deal of choice and control over the way their lives turn out?

No! At least that is the answer suggested by the research of Paolo Verme, using a large data set drawn from the World and European Values Surveys (‘Happiness, Freedom and Control’, 2007). Survey respondents were asked to rate on a scale from 1 to 10 ‘how much freedom of choice and control you feel you have over the way your life turns out they had over the way your life turns out’ where 1 means ‘none at all’ and 10 means ‘a great deal’. When this ‘freedom and control’ variable was included in a statistical analysis to explain life satisfaction it was shown to be more important than other significant variables, including subjective health and income.

I have done some research of my own using data from the 2005 World Values Survey to explore the relationship between ‘freedom and control’ and happiness and life satisfaction. The charts shown below have been constructed using data from about 80,000 respondents in 57 countries. In each chart the sum of the columns in the depth axis (happiness or life satisfaction) is 100%. So, for example, looking at Figure 1, you will see that the percentage of people who are ‘quite happy’ is higher than those who are ‘very happy’, ‘not very happy’ and ‘not at all happy’ irrespective of perceptions about freedom and control. The chart suggests, however, that people are much more likely to say that they are very happy when they perceive that they have a great deal of freedom of choice and control.

A comparison of Figure 1 and Figure 2 suggests that there is a much stronger relationship between ‘freedom and control’ and life satisfaction than between ‘freedom and control’ and happiness. This makes sense to me. A well-treated slave might say that she is quite happy, even though she has little freedom, but she would be much less likely to say that she is satisfied with her life.

In case anyone is wondering, as discussed here, there is evidence that perceptions of freedom or choice and control from the World Values Survey are correlated with more objective indicators of freedom.

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