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Happiness beyond wealth: Some communities find joy in simplicity

New research provides the latest evidence that money doesn’t buy happiness. The study reveals that many Indigenous peoples and local communities across the globe experience high levels of life satisfaction despite possessing minimal monetary income. 

The study was conducted by experts at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB), in collaboration with researchers McGill University in Canada. The findings shed light on the complexities of human happiness and suggest the need to reevaluate what is considered essential for a fulfilling life.

Study significance 

“It is often said that money can’t buy happiness, yet many surveys have shown that richer people tend to report being more satisfied with their lives. This tendency could be taken to indicate that high material wealth – as measured in monetary terms – is a necessary ingredient for happiness,” wrote the study authors. 

“Here, we show survey results from people living in small-scale societies outside the globalized mainstream, many of whom identify as Indigenous. Despite having little monetary income, the respondents frequently report being very satisfied with their lives, and some communities report satisfaction scores similar to the wealthiest countries.” 

“These results imply greater flexibility in the means to achieve happiness than are apparent from surveys that examine only industrialized societies.”

Focus of the study

The pursuit of economic growth has long been considered a key strategy for enhancing the well-being of populations in low-income countries. This approach has been supported by global surveys over the past few decades, which indicate that residents of high-income nations generally report greater life satisfaction compared to those in poorer countries. 

The research was focused on individuals from small-scale societies at the margins of the global economy, where monetary transactions are less central to daily life and where people’s livelihoods are intimately connected with nature. 

Life satisfaction levels

By surveying 2,966 individuals from Indigenous and local communities across 19 globally distributed sites, the experts found that a significant portion of these populations, despite low levels of monetary income, reported life satisfaction levels on par with those found in affluent countries.

“Surprisingly, many populations with very low monetary incomes report very high average levels of life satisfaction, with scores similar to those in wealthy countries,” said study lead author Eric Galbraith.

While not all communities reported high satisfaction levels, with some averages dipping to 5.1, four of the sites boasted scores exceeding 8, a figure comparable to the satisfaction levels of wealthy Scandinavian countries known for their high quality of life. 

Remarkably, these high levels of satisfaction were reported even though many of these communities have endured histories of marginalization and oppression.

New perspectives on happiness 

The results suggest that human societies can cultivate highly satisfying lives for their members without the need for substantial material wealth. 

“The strong correlation frequently observed between income and life satisfaction is not universal and proves that wealth – as generated by industrialized economies – is not fundamentally required for humans to lead happy lives,” said study senior author Victoria Reyes-Garcia.

The research opens up new perspectives on happiness and well-being, suggesting that the wealth generated by industrialized economies is not a fundamental requirement for leading a fulfilling life.

Broader implications

The implications of these findings are significant, particularly in the context of sustainability and the pursuit of human happiness. They provide strong evidence that pursuing resource-intensive economic growth is not necessary for achieving high levels of subjective well-being. 

The researchers noted that, although they now know that people in many Indigenous and local communities report high levels of life satisfaction, they do not know why. Prior studies suggest that family and social support and relationships, spirituality, and connections to nature are among the important factors on which this happiness is based. 

“But it is possible that the important factors differ significantly between societies or, conversely, that a small subset of factors dominate everywhere,” said Galbraith.

“I would hope that, by learning more about what makes life satisfying in these diverse communities, it might help many others to lead more satisfying lives while addressing the sustainability crisis.”


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