Happiness really doesn’t cost a thing, study explains

BARCELONA, Spain — Happiness may not have a high price tag, a new study explains. A team in Spain is highlighting the numerous indigenous peoples and local communities worldwide who lead fulfilling lives, despite possessing minimal financial resources.

The notion that money buys happiness is a common assumption in economics and policy. As incomes rise, people are generally expected to lead more fulfilling lives. Indeed, international polls have shown that people in wealthier countries consistently rate themselves as more satisfied than people in poorer countries. Based on this pattern, organizations like the UN have promoted economic growth policies aimed at raising incomes across the globe.

The study, conducted by the research team at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain, found that many societies with low incomes still experience levels of life satisfaction that rival those in affluent nations. This discovery challenges the conventional connection tying wealth and happiness, suggesting that in small-scale societies where monetary transactions are infrequent, contentment may originate from factors other than financial wealth.

“The strong correlation frequently observed between income and life satisfaction is not universal and proves that wealth – as generated by industrialized economies – is not fundamentally required for humans to lead happy lives,” says Victoria Reyes-Garcia, ICREA researcher at ICTA-UAB and senior author of the study, in a media release.

The study’s authors have long questioned the universality of the relationship between income and happiness. While higher earnings may improve life evaluations within a given cultural context, multiple lines of research suggest income has limited value for emotional well-being once basic needs are met. For instance, as societies become wealthier over time, people do not necessarily become happier, a phenomenon known as the Easterlin Paradox. The research team hypothesized that polling a wider range of societies—especially those on the margins of the global economy—could lead to new perspectives.

To address the lack of data on happiness in these communities, the researchers surveyed nearly 3,000 people across 19 Indigenous communities in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. Remarkably, only 64 percent of the households surveyed reported having any cash income.

The findings indicate an average life satisfaction score of 6.8 out of 10 among these communities. Notably, four sites reported average satisfaction scores above 8, comparable to those observed in the wealthy Scandinavian countries, according to other surveys. The lowest average on record for these sites was 5.1, but the researchers note that overall, these results are consistent with the notion that human societies can support very satisfactory lives without material wealth.

The results revealed a stark contrast with leading international polls like the Gallup World Poll. Across 150 countries, the Gallup data shows national average life satisfaction ratings consistently correlated with income, only exceeding 7 out of 10 in countries where per capita GDP tops $40,000 per year. Meanwhile, many Indigenous groups with estimated annual incomes below $1,000 per person reported averages above 8 out of 10.

Happy woman with arms wide open in field of sunflowers
Many societies with low incomes still experience levels of life satisfaction that rival those in affluent nations. (JillWellington / pixabay.com)

“Surprisingly, many populations with very low monetary incomes report very high average levels of life satisfaction, with scores similar to those in wealthy countries,” says Eric Galbraith, a researcher at ICTA-UAB and McGill University and lead author of the study. “This is so, despite many of these societies having suffered histories of marginalization and oppression.”

The researchers used statistical models to assess which factors best explain variations in life satisfaction at the different sites. Individual income showed a positive correlation, confirming that money contributes to happiness up to a point. However, wealth differences accounted for only a very small portion of the total variation among respondents. Instead, the team found unknown village-level characteristics unrelated to average income were far more predictive of life satisfaction reports.

So if not income, what factors might support such high happiness in environments of material poverty? While not measured directly, the researchers point to previous studies highlighting the importance of social and community ties. Among contemporary Indigenous groups, happiness and well-being have been linked to strong family bonds, social participation, connection to nature, and spiritual fulfillment. Access to natural surroundings may also play a role.

“It is possible that the important factors differ significantly between societies or, conversely, that a small subset of factors dominate everywhere. I would hope that, by learning more about what makes life satisfying in these diverse communities, it might help many others to lead more satisfying lives while addressing the sustainability crisis,” Galbraith concludes.

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

South West News Service writer Isobel Williams contributed to this report.