Will Democracy Make You Happy?

For decades, politicians and political scientists have clung to the notion that free nations breed happy people. Now, though, a new 'science of happiness' is turning that equation on its head.

To travel to Moldova is to travel to a land submerged in a deep and persistent pool of despair. Faces are sullen and drawn. Everyone moves about listlessly, doing the Moldovan Shuffle. A cloud of despondency hangs in the air, every bit as real, and toxic, as the smog in Los Angeles or the coal dust in Linfen, China.

Statistically, Moldova may be the least happy nation on the planet. On a scale of 1 (least happy) to 10, Moldovans can muster only a 4.5 in self-reported surveys. They are less happy than their morose neighbors, the Ukrainians and the Romanians, and inexplicably, they are less happy than much of sub-Saharan Africa. What is truly mysterious, though, and deeply troubling for those in the business of nation building, is that Moldovan despair persists despite the advent of democracy.

This wasn’t supposed to happen here. The mood in Moldova — and indeed in most of the former Soviet bloc countries — flies in the face of what is received wisdom in foreign-policy circles: Democratic nations are happy nations. Or, to put it another way, the path to national bliss is paved with democracy. Until now, the debate has centered only on how best to travel that path and at what cost. "This interpretation is appealing and suggests that we have a quick fix for most of the world’s problems: adopt a democratic constitution, and live happily ever after," says Ronald Inglehart, a professor at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan, and a man who has spent a career studying the relationship between democracy and happiness.

There’s only one problem with this compelling and seemingly self-evident truism. It’s not true. "To assume that democracy automatically makes people happy is to assume that the tail is wagging the dog," says Inglehart. In other words, the well-intentioned nation builders and democracy exporters have it backward. It’s not that democracies make people happy but, rather, that happy people make democracies.


This remarkable finding isn’t simply a new theory born out of thin air. It’s based on hard data that social scientists on the leading edge of the emerging "science of happiness" are now employing to measure cultural artifacts such as trust and happiness, just as political scientists have for decades measured levels of democracy by comparing such metrics as press freedom and voting rights.

These social scientists do so through a disarmingly simple technique. They ask people, "Overall, how happy are you with your life these days?" Surveys such as the comprehensive World Values Survey have posed that question, with little variation, to people in more than 80 nations, accounting for some 85 percent of the world’s population. They have produced a mother lode of data. Although the data are often contradictory, a few clear patterns have emerged. We now know, for example, that happy countries tend to be wealthy ones, with temperate climates and, crucially, stable democracies.

The question, though, is which comes first: happiness or democracy? Despite our earlier thinking, there is now growing evidence that a happy population, one where people are satisfied with their lives as a whole, is a prerequisite for democracy.

In the 1980s, happiness and democracy were closely linked (with a correlation of 0.8), thus cementing the democracy-equals-happiness theory in the minds of many political scientists and policymakers. But then came the so-called third wave of democracy, a flood of infant democracies that rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe. These nations have not enjoyed a happiness dividend, and, indeed, as in Moldova, many are less happy today than they were during Soviet times. Today, the correlation between happiness and democracy is only 0.25, less than a third of what it was in the 1980s. In more than 200 surveys carried out by the World Values Survey, 28 of the 30 least happy nations were registered in former communist states. The remaining two surveys were conducted in Iraq. In Russia, both subjective well-being (happiness) and trust have fallen sharply since its people began voting in relatively free elections. By 1995, a majority of Russians described themselves as unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives as a whole. The same is true of Moldova and several other former Soviet republics. (Russian misery, by the way, predates Vladimir Putin’s recent crackdown on freedoms.)

Contrast the mood in the former Soviet states with that of China. During the past two decades, as China witnessed an economic boom, its citizens reported levels of satisfaction consistently double those of people in former Soviet countries. This, despite the fact that China remains a one-party communist state where an indiscreet Google search can land you in jail.

Clearly, democracy is only one source of human happiness, and indeed it may not be the greatest source. Economic growth appears to affect national happiness at least as much as democracy. Economic growth helps foster trust between citizens and the state, and trust is essential to democracy. That’s why in nations such as South Korea and Taiwan, a spurt of economic growth has preceded democratic reforms.

What the evidence on happiness demonstrates is that happy people are much more likely to express satisfaction with their country’s political regime, regardless of what kind that might be, than unhappy people. That’s not to say that democracy doesn’t matter. It does. All things being equal, democracy does provide a happiness boost. But all things are rarely equal.

Some studies point to a definite "happiness bonus" among the world’s democracies, for example. In 1999, Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer famously studied the effects of their country’s system of direct democracy on happiness levels. Switzerland makes a perfect laboratory for this kind of study; the country shares a common culture (if not language) and relatively even economic development. Yet the degree of democracy varies from one district to the next. Frey and Stutzer asked some 6,000 residents, both Swiss citizens and foreigners, one question: "How satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?" They found a clear correlation between the vitality of direct democracy and the subjective well-being, or happiness, of each district. The Swiss example proves that a bit more democracy makes a developed, already democratic country like Switzerland a bit happier. For the Swiss, direct democracy is the icing on their cake. But for nations with no cake, the icing is meaningless.


It isn’t hard to fall into the old trap of assuming democracy is such a powerful force that it can sweep aside any cultural differences that might stand in its way. Confronted with the obvious goodness of free elections and self-determination, peoples of the world should shed their cultural vestiges the way a snake sloughs its skin, right? It’s a compelling idea, a perfectly plausible one, but one that happens to be wrong. "Culture seems to shape democracy far more than democracy shapes culture," says Inglehart.

Indeed, this notion of cultural primacy is gaining favor, especially among foreign-policy realists such as Colin Powell. "There are some places that are not ready for the kind of democracy we find so attractive for ourselves. They are not culturally ready for it," Powell said in a recent interview with GQ. That is not to say, of course, that these places won’t ever be ready for democracy. They just aren’t ready now, and no amount of wishing, or purple ink, will make it so.

All of this can be a bit depressing for those who believe that foreign policy should be informed by an idealistic streak. But, as Iraq has demonstrated, midwifing a constitution won’t necessarily turn a distrustful, unhappy society into a trusting, happy one. Of course, the science of happiness is in its infancy, and it would be foolish to base a foreign policy on its tentative conclusions. Social scientists may be able to measure, with some accuracy, abstractions such as happiness and trust, but they don’t necessarily know how to produce these qualities — in a person or a nation. What these findings do remind us, though, is that democracy bubbles up to the surface when the time is right and not a second sooner.

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