By Richard Westlund
Isaac Prilleltensky believes there is a strong connection between happiness, fairness, and social justice on a national level. “People who live in countries that promote greater social justice tend to be happier,” said Prilleltensky, professor, Department of Educational and Psychological Studies; vice provost for institutional culture; and the Erwin and Barbara Mautner Chair in Community Well-Being in the School of Education and Human Development.
For example, fairer access to health care, education, and childcare frees individuals to pursue their personal aspirations and to be more productive in their careers. In addition, countries that place a greater emphasis on social justice contribute to psychological well-being because residents feel they matter to their communities, Prilleltensky said. It’s no coincidence that Black Lives Matter is the name of a U.S. social justice movement, he added.
Social justice may also help reduce prejudices against migrants, asylum seekers and other groups. Countries where fairness and equity are strong values may offer more balanced access to career and income opportunities. “The more contrast there is, the lousier the individual at the lower end of the comparison feels, which, I believe, explains why countries with more equal opportunities have higher levels of well-being,” said Prilleltensky.
In a recent study of 28 European Union (EU) countries, Prilleltensky and Salvatore Di Martino, an independent researcher in Leeds, UK, found that individuals were generally happier in countries such as Denmark, Czech Republic, and the United Kingdom, which enjoy good conditions of social justice, than in countries like Italy, Greece, and Hungary, which report lower levels of social justice.
Their study, “Happiness as Fairness: The Relationship between National Life Satisfaction and Social Justice in EU Countries,” was published in the Journal of Community Psychology and featured recently in the Greater Good Magazine at University of California, Berkeley.
Prilleltensky and Di Martino used data from the EU Social Justice Index, which scores countries on education, healthcare, non-discrimination policies, and many other factors, and compared the findings with how 170,000 Europeans reported their satisfaction with life. They ruled out other variables like age, gender, occupation, or a country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
“Many factors are important in making people happy, including a good income, being healthy, and enjoying social relationships,” said Prilleltensky. At the country level, he and Di Martino found that three interlinked variables strongly predict national happiness:
- Social capital – relationships, institutional trust, social norms and civic participation.
- Social justice – access to equal resources and opportunities.
- Individual freedom – countries that promote self-determination are slightly happier than countries with rigid cultural norms.
“Our findings lend support to the hypothesis that social justice is highly related to life satisfaction,” said Prilleltensky. “Now, we are working on a new study that suggests that social justice indirectly affects social capital and GDP. This means that if we increase conditions of social justice in a society, it is possible to also increase economic and social conditions, which in turn are important to people’s happiness. These findings are of interest for all those who are advocating for alternative and new measures of country development that go beyond mere financial parameters.”