, Volume 75, Issue 2, pp 169-216

How Social Relations and Structures can Produce Happiness and Unhappiness: An International Comparative Analysis

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Abstract

In this paper, subjective well being, as measured by survey questions on happiness and life satisfaction, is investigated from a sociological-comparative point of view. The central thesis is that happiness and satisfaction must be understood as the outcome of an interaction process between individual characteristics and aspirations on the one side, and social relations and macrosocial structures on the other side. A distinction is made between life satisfaction and happiness; the former is more seen as the outcome of an evaluation process including material and social aspirations and achievements, the latter as an outcome of positive experiences, particularly close personal relationships. The focus of this paper is on micro- and macrosocial conditions favouring or inhibiting the emergence of happiness and satisfaction. It is hypothesized that dense and good basic social relations, occupational involvement and success, sociocultural (religious and altruistic) orientations and participation are conducive to happiness and life satisfaction; the same should be true at the macrolevel for economic prosperity, relatively equal social structures, a well-established welfare state and political democracy. The latter conditions, however, should be more important for life satisfaction than for happiness. A comparative, multilevel regression analysis of happiness in 41 nations around the world is carried out (using the World Value Survey 1995–1997). Both our general assumption and most of the specific hypotheses could be confirmed. It turned very clearly that “happiness” and “life satisfaction” are two different concepts. It could be shown that microsocial embedding and sociocultural integration of a person are highly relevant for happiness. However, contrary to earlier studies, we find that macrosocial factors like the economic wealth of nation, the distribution of income, the extent of the welfare state and political freedom are also relevant, particularly for satisfaction. What counts most is the ability to cope with life, including subjective health and financial satisfaction, close social relations, and the economic perspectives for improvement in the future, both at the level of the individual and at that of the society. These abilities are certainly improved by favourable macrosocial conditions and institutions, such as a more equal income distribution, political democracy and a welfare state.