Friday, October 20, 2017

Why might economic development influence how unhappy people feel when they don't get the love they desire?

There is evidence that a discrepancy between the amount of self-transcending emotion (e.g. love, trust) that people want to feel and what they actually feel has an adverse impact on their happiness.  Researchers have observed that this adverse impact is greater for people in countries with relatively high levels of economic development.

What is it about economic development that could explain this?

Before canvassing possible explanations I need to provide some background information. The evidence referred to above is in a recent article entitled ‘The Secret to Happiness: Feeling Good or Feeling Right?  by Maya Tamir, Shalom H. Schwartz, Shige Oishi, and Min Y. Kim. The study was based on a cross-cultural sample of 2,324 participants from 8 countries around the world.  I wrote about the main findings of the article on this blog in my last post entitled: What was Aristotle’s secret of happiness?

As indicated in the diagram reproduced above, the authors found that the absolute discrepancy between desired and experienced self-transcending emotions had a larger impact on life satisfaction and depressive symptoms of people in countries with relatively high ratings on the Human Development Index (HDI).

Evidence that economic development influences the impact of emotional discrepancy on happiness was only observed in respect of self-transcending emotions. The findings of the study suggest that economic development has no influence on the way discrepancies between desired and experienced anger, excitement and calmness impact on life satisfaction and depressive symptoms.

So, what is it about economic development that could explain why it seems to make happiness levels more sensitive to feeling the right amount of love? The authors suggest that perhaps “for people who struggle to meet their basic needs the amount of love they actually feel matters more for their happiness than whether this amount feels right or not”. They suggest that this would not apply to other emotions because love is “linked to social connectedness”, which “is presumably a basic human need and a key determinant of well-being”.

I’m not sure I understand what the authors mean. Anger might also be linked to social connectedness. Angry people might find it harder to maintain strong social connections.

A distinguishing feature of love, relative to emotions such as anger, is that when people are asked how much love they feel they could think of either how much they feel loved by others, or how much love they feel toward others.

If we think in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it might be reasonable to speculate that people whose basic physiological and safety needs are satisfied might place higher priority on obtaining love than those who are struggling to meet their basic needs. In economic terms this could be thought of as an upward shift in the marginal utility of love as incomes rise. That could explain why a shortfall in love obtained relative to the desired level seems to have a larger impact on happiness of people in countries with relatively high HDI ratings.

That is just speculation. The authors suggest future research should explore further “when, why, and how” the links between emotion discrepancies and well-being vary across countries. It will be interesting to see what eventuates.