Several studies have shown a correlation between happiness and freedom. How can we explain this relationship? If we assume that there is some form of causation going on here – and that, in other words, there isn’t a third element which causes similar evolutions of the levels of both freedom and happiness – then it’s reasonable to conclude that freedom causes happiness.
The other way around would only make sense if we adopt a somewhat self-defeating notion of freedom: if we’re happy we don’t need anything more, and hence we don’t need to be able to choose; being free means being free from want.
However, if freedom makes us happy, how exactly does it perform this magic? One possible story is that freedom means, in part, economic freedom. And it does seem to be the case that economic freedom makes us wealthier. Wealth, in turn, makes us happier. There’s even less doubt about that.
Another explanation of the relationship: freedom means control, self-government and self-ownership. These states of being are intrinsically valuable but it’s not silly to argue that they should also make us happier. The life of a slave, a servant, a citizen of a dictatorship or a victim of psychological coercion can be a happy one but it’s not a happy one on average, at least given a definition of happiness that includes self-reflection and awareness of possible alternatives.
On the other hand, too much choice and responsibility for ourselves can make us worse off: it makes our lives more complicated and riskier, and increases the chances of regret or post-hoc dissatisfaction with certain choices. Regret obviously doesn’t make us happier. Neither does self-criticism, and self-criticism is another likely outcome of more freedom. If the results of our actions are caused by our free choices, then we can’t blame someone or something else if these results turn out bad. Buddhism can be understood as a reaction to the possibility of regret: freedom for Buddhism is not the ability to choose – and regret your choice afterwards – but is instead the freedom from want. This, however, is akin to defining freedom away, as I’ve argued above.
There are indeed measurable drops in self-reported well-being associated with the process of acquiring agency (see for example this source). Which may be related to the possibility of regret, the burden of responsibility for oneself, or the fact that increased choice and opportunity often entails an increased expectation that the choices we make and opportunities we get result in success of some sort. After all, if we don’t get what we choose why bother with the freedom to choose in the first place? And as we all know, success is rare. Sour grapes and adaptive preferences may then be seen as a reaction of the free against life’s many long shots. We are free to choose the grapes and even to attempt to get them – and our culture of freedom can even persuade us to choose a lot and choose things that we may never get – but instead of damning our overpromising freedom when we can’t get them we convince ourselves that we don’t want a choice in the matter. Once again, freedom is reduced to freedom from want.
In sum: the causal effects of freedom on happiness are complicated, if there is an effect at all. Maybe we should consider the possibility that freedom is worth having irrespective of or even despite of its impact on happiness. And is worth having even if the effect on happiness is negative.
More posts in this series are here.