World Values: What makes nations happy?

The unprecedented wealth that has accumulated in advanced societies during the past generation means that an increasing share of the population has grown up taking survival for granted. This means that priorities have shifted from economic and physical security to more subjective concerns of well being like self-expression. Thus modernisation and economic progress is not a linear process, once a society moves towards high levels of economic growth, there are only incremental changes in quality of life. However, attitudes towards wellbeing continue to evolve.


Figure 1: Survival and Well Being as related to per capita GNP.

The World Values Survey (WVS) is one such piece of research that tries to find evidence that orientations have shifted. Since the 1990s, results from the World Values Survey have been noticing a shift from Traditional toward Secular-rational values in almost all industrial societies. The Survey is a global research project that explores people’s values and beliefs, how they change over time and what social and political impact they have, carried out by a worldwide network of social scientists since 1981. The WVS is the only source of empirical data on attitudes covering a majority of the world’s population (nearly 90%). Data from the World Values Survey have for example been used to better understand the motivations behind events such as the 2010-2011 Middle East and North Africa proteststhe Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the Yugoslav wars and political upheaval in the 1990s. The survey is conducted every few years and is in the final phases of its 2012 research.

Two dimensions dominate the picture in the WVS analysis: (1) Traditional/ Secular-rational and (2) Survival/Self-expression values. These two dimensions explain more than 70 percent of the cross-national variance in a factor analysis of ten indicators-and each of these dimensions is strongly correlated with scores of other important orientations.

According to the WVS website, the Traditional/Secular-rational values dimension reflects the contrast between societies in which religion is very important and those in which it is not with a wide range of other related orientations. Societies near the traditional pole emphasize the importance of parent-child ties and deference to authority, along with absolute standards and traditional family values, and reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride, and a nationalistic outlook. Societies with secular-rational values have the opposite preferences on all of these topics. The second major dimension of cross-cultural variation is linked with the transition from industrial society to post-industrial societies-which brings a polarization between Survival and Self-expression values.

Each country is positioned according to its people’s values and not its geographical location. To a large extent the two coincide, but the map measures cultural proximity, not geographical proximity. Thus, Australia, Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain are cultural neighbors, reflecting their relatively similar values, despite their geographical dispersion. Figure 2 and 3 provide a comparison of world values between 2004 and 2008. The nature of the values on either axis is explained by Figure 4.


Figure 2: The World Value Survey Cultural Map 2010

Source: Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, “Changing Mass Priorities: The Link Between Modernization and Democracy.” Perspectives on Politics June 2010 (vol 8, No. 2)

Cultures and Values old

Figure 3: The World Value Survey Cultural Map 1999-2004

Source: Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005: page 63.
Scatter chart

Figure 4: Scatter chart of Authority and Survival or Well Being
Source: R. Inglehart, Modernization and Postmodernization (Princeton, 1997).

The shift from survival values to self-expression values includes shifts in child-rearing values, shifts from hard work toward emphasis on imagination and tolerance as important values to teach a child. This is supplanted with a rising sense of subjective well-being that is conducive to an atmosphere of tolerance, trust and political moderation. Finally, societies that rank high on self-expression values also tend to rank high on interpersonal trust.

Happiness: Religion and national pride

The WVS has often been used to measure happiness in states. Data from representative national surveys carried out from 1981 to 2007 shows the extent to which a society allows free choice has a major impact on happiness.

The WVS finds that that national pride had a strong zero-order correlation with attitudes towards well being but it was closely linked with strong emphasis on religion.  When included with religiosity in the regression, national pride did not have an independent impact. Both religion and national pride were stronger in less-developed societies than in developed ones, which helps explain why some low-income societies had relatively high levels of “happiness”. For example, the contrast between the Latin American societies and the ex- communist societies shown in Figure 5 may be due in part to the fact that virtually all of the Latin American societies surveyed at that time were strongly religious and had strong national pride, whereas the ex-communist nations were not religious and did not have national pride: 76% of those surveyed in Latin American countries stated that ‘‘God is very important in my life’’ (placing themselves the top of a 10-point scale), whereas only 27% of those surveyed in the ex-communist countries and 42% of those surveyed in the remaining countries did so. In addition, 77% of those surveyed in Latin American countries said they are ‘‘very proud’’ of their nationality, as compared with 39% of those surveyed in the ex-communist societies and 57% of those surveyed in the remaining countries.

Figure 5: Happiness and GNP

So while we started off by saying that more democratic and prosperous countries have values that encourage self-expression, and people in those countries are not worried about survival, happiness is something that exists even is non-industrialized and conservative states. These countries score high on traditional values as well as having good scores with regards to self expression (Figure 2). Thus it is choice and self expression that makes for happiness, regardless of traditional values. Secular-rational nations are only happy, when they are not worried with survival. Thus countries like Denmark are Sweden are “happy” and post-communist countries are “unhappy”.

WVS Methodology: The World Values Survey uses the sample surveys as its mode of data collection, a systematic and standardized approach to collect information through interviewing representative national samples of individuals. Samples are drawn from the entire population of 18 years and older. The minimum sample is 1000. In most countries, no upper age limit is imposed and some form of stratified random sampling is used to obtain representative national samples. The survey is carried out by professional organizations using face-to-face interviews or phone interviews for remote areas. Each country has a Principal Investigator responsible for conducting the survey in accordance with the fixed rules and procedures.

Pakistan Policy Group, 2012.


One thought on “World Values: What makes nations happy?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s