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CHAPTER 5 Values, Objective Needs, and the Subjective Quality of Life I. INTRODUCTION S P E C U L A T I O N on the sources of human satisfaction has an ancient history. One of the simplest and seemingly most plausible hypotheses was voiced by Plato: Those who are materially welloff are likely to be satisfied, while those who are impoverished are apt to be dissatisfied and a source of political instability. But as early as de Tocqueville it was noted that, paradoxical as it seemed, the French Revolution occurred not at a point of maximum impoverishment but during a period of relative prosperity. The tendency to assume a one-to-one relationship between objective conditions and subjective satisfaction was questioned by such observations, but by no means ended. During the 1950's and early 1960's, one of the key concepts underpinning belief in the decline of ideology and sharp political conflict was the assumption that the more people have, the more satisfied they are. Rising levels of economic welfare, it seemed reasonable to suppose, should lead to rising levels of public satisfaction. Yet by the late 1960's it was apparent that something was wrong. The traditional principles of welfare economics did not seem to be working. The real income of the American public rose very markedly between 1957 and 1973, but their reported levels of happiness actually declined slightly.1 Never before had Western publics had so much material welfare, as measured by all objective indicators. Yet not since the 1930's had there been so much manifest discontent. These circumstances led to an increasing aware1 See Angus E. Campbell et al., The Quality of American Life: Perceptions , Evaluations and Satisfactions (New York: Russell Sage, 1976). Cf. James A. Davis, "Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Yes, Indeed, About .0005 per Year." Paper prepared for the International Conference on Subjective Indicators of the Quality of Life, Cambridge, England, September 8-11, 1975; and Otis Dudley Duncan, "Does Money Buy Satisfaction ?" Social Indicators Research, 2 (1975), 267-274. Objective Needs — 117 ness of the need to understand and measure subjective well-being, in addition to the now-familiar economic indicators. II. ENVIRONMENT, ASPIRATIONS, VALUES AND SATISFACTION: SOME HYPOTHESES There has been a remarkable flowering of social indicators research in recent years. Building on the pioneering studies of Gurin, Veroff and FeId,2 of Cantril,3 and of Bradburn,4 major investigations of the perceived quality of life have been undertaken in the United States and at least a dozen other Western countries. This research has been fruitful in a variety of ways. But for present purposes the most interesting result is a finding that is far from obvious yet turns up repeatedly in various investigations: the fact that there is remarkably little variation in Overall Life Satisfaction from one group to another within a given society. For example, in an analysis of American data, Andrews and Withey find that the combined effects of age, sex, race, income, education and occupation account for only 8 percent of the variance in a carefully validated index of Overall Life Satisfaction.5 Just as one would expect, the rich are more satisfied with their incomes than the poor are, and the highly educated are more satisfied with their education than the less educated. But the differences are smaller than one might expect; and when we analyze satisfaction with one's life as a whole, even income (which is the strongest social background predictor in almost every country) shows only a modest relationship. Why does satisfaction with one's life as a whole vary so little across groups whose circumstances vary greatly? The global nature of Overall Life Satisfaction may itself be an important contributing factor. For, as Andrews and Withey demonstrate convincingly , satisfaction with one's life as a whole is additive—it reflects the sum of one's satisfaction in various domains (such as income, housing, leisure activities, family life, and so forth) 2 Gerald Gurin et at, Americans View Their Mental Health (New York: Basic Books, 1960). 3 Hadley Cantril, The Pattern of Human Concerns (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1965). 4 Norman Bradburn, The Structure of Psychological Well-Being (Chicago : Aldine Press, 1969). 5 See Frank M. Andrews and Stephen B. Withey, Social Indicators of Weil-Being in America (New York: Plenum, 1976). 118 —Value Change weighted according to the relative importance of the given domain. There is a definite tendency for satisfaction in one domain to...


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