If you don’t feel free, chances are you don’t feel happy either.
Both of these words, free and happy, are pretty loose in their official definitions. Scientific studies have used various metrics to measure happiness; self-reporting, brain waves, psychological evaluations, and family member surveys. As for freedom, the studies mainly use the self-reported metric, how free a person feels.
When people feel less restrained by outside forces, when people feel that their life is their own to do as they please, they are happier.
Even when holding income, sex, education, race, religion, politics, and family status constant, we find that people who felt free were about 18 percentage points more likely than others to say that they were very happy.
Even people who think that the government should be less involved in daily life are happier than people who think society needs more rules. And it might be tempting to chalk this up to people who are poor feeling unhappy, regardless of freedom. It makes sense to think they would want the government to intervene in order to make them more wealthy, and thus happier.
But when you look at countries overall, you still find that freer countries are happier countries.
…in 1990, at the end of the Communist era, one cross-country survey found that 41 percent of Americans said that they were very happy—contrasted with just 14 percent of East Germans, 6 percent of Russians and Czechs, and 2 percent of Latvians. Of course, regimes behind the Iron Curtain were not just economically unfree; they were politically unfree as well.
Of course, this could also just point to the fact that the freer the country, the more prosperous the people. So you could say that being prosperous makes you happy. Except this would prove that free economies deliver more prosperity. So no matter how you slice it, more freedom means more happiness–even if prosperity is a necessary step in between.
But another study found that even prosperity might not matter as much as freedom when it comes to happiness.
Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer made this point convincingly in the 1990s, comparing happiness levels across various Swiss cantons, which vary dramatically in how much political participation they afford their citizens. Cantons that allowed citizens more direct democratic rights, as well as meetings with leaders to discuss political and financial matters, proved significantly happier than cantons where political access was more restricted.
Now there may very well be some very special people, who even in a prison cell would still mentally “feel free.” But for most of us, factors of our environment come into play as much as our mental attitude.
But then we get to the chicken or the egg thing. If you don’t feel free, is it because of your environment? Or does your environment not feel free because of your mentality? Either way, you can fix this. You can either change your environment, or you can change your attitude. But it takes recognizing the root of the issue.
If you don’t feel free, and it is making you unhappy, you should start getting specific. Identify exactly what is making you feel unfree. Not “government” but “high taxes or illegal marijuana.” You can legally set up your finances to drastically cut your tax rate. And you can move to a place where marijuana is legal.
And don’t say “society” makes you feel unfree. Is it watching the news or scrolling facebook? Stop. Living in a city with a country heart? Move. Is it Sunday dinner with terrible relatives? You’re under no obligation, although the choices they force on you may be tough. Still, it is their choice how to react. You have the ability to make yourself free of things that keep you constrained.
Let’s address the claim that people who have too many choices are less happy.
Some studies have found that when given too many options, people get freedom overload, and are more anxious, finding it harder to make any choice at all. In one instance, two sample booths were set up to sell jam. One gave away 24 samples, and that one attracted more tasters. Another booth gave away 6 samples, and even though fewer people stopped to try the jam, they actually sold more.
The idea is that people are attracted to freedom, but in the end, it makes them stagnate and shut down with an overload of choice.
But there are a couple factors to consider.
One is that people are naturally constrained by their circumstances to some extent. Maybe you are technically free to do anything you want. But at any one point in your life, there are really only a few choices to be made.
It gets overwhelming to think, I could move anywhere I want, start a business or get a job, find a lover or play the single life, or hike the Appalachian Trail and write a book. That train of thought makes it seem like there are too many choices. You may choose to stay in a situation that doesn’t make you happy because you have no idea what choice of the infinite possibilities will actually make you happier.
But you don’t really have that many choices right now. Do you want to move, or do you like where you are? That is only two choices.
If you choose to move, that clearly opens up more choices. You say, where should I move? Is every square inch of the earth truly an option? No. You should be able to identify why you want to move. Then you simply need to make another series of small choices that are not overwhelming when you take them one at a time. Warm or cold? City or country? Coastal or inland?
Second, most people are naturally constrained by their own unique morality. Some people adopt moralities from religion or spirituality, and some people create their own. It doesn’t really matter, there are some things you will be willing to do, and some things you definitely will not. You probably don’t truly have a choice between becoming a doctor, lawyer, teacher, meth dealer, or pimp. Some of those options probably don’t align with your morals–like becoming a lawyer.
When you break things down to a step by step process of where you are going from here, the choices for what to do with life become much less overwhelming. It is great to have a 5 or even 10-year plan, but things are going to change. Most choices don’t require a steadfast decision in the present. Your smaller choices in the present will instead present new opportunities to choose from later.
And if you have some general philosophy or morality that you live by, certain choices are off the table altogether.
So by if you limit your own choices, you may very well be happier. But if someone else limits your choices for you, you are likely to feel less free, and thus be unhappy.
But again, don’t let the feeling of being unfree convince you that you are actually unfree. If you aren’t convinced that you have this much control over your own life, start by reading the 1973 classic, How I found Freedom in an Unfree World, by Harry Browne.