Alternative recipes for life satisfaction


Do you feel like the things you hold to be important in life are the same things that your family or community or culture or government hold to be important?

The degree of fit between your values and the values of the culture in which you exist may be worth examining. 

I just finished reading and taking notes on a paper titled “Alternative Recipes for Life Satisfaction: Evidence from Five World Regions” by Heady, Trommsdorff & Wagner, published in March 2021 in ‘Applied Research in Quality of Life’. 

At the risk of sounding like a simpleton, I got a lot from it. 

The article looked at how our values (what we hold to be important) are linked to the attitudes we hold, how we act (behaviour), the satisfaction we have in different aspects of our life and our overall life satisfaction.

For example, If I rate ‘family’ as being important (value), then it would be sensible to predict that this would translate into my attitudes, behaviours and satisfaction, that is: 

  • More likely to believe it is important to make my parents proud (attitude)
  • More likely to spend extra time with my family (behaviour)
  • Be more trustful of my family (domain satisfaction)
  • Be more satisfied in life overall (overall life satisfaction)   

The researchers were interested in whether it was possible to identify successful life ‘recipes’ (combinations of values, attitudes, behaviours and satisfaction) and whether it was the case that these successful life recipes were consistent across cultures. Is there a ‘one size fits all’ recipe that leads to life satisfaction? 

To explore these questions the researchers used data from the World Values Survey to compare six different recipes across five different regions of the world. 


The recipes

Six life recipes were explored in the research.  

The Traditional Family Values Recipe 👨‍👨‍👧‍👧 – putting family first, having more children, spending time with relatives. 

The Friendship and Leisure Values Recipe 👩🏽‍🤝‍👩🏻🏄‍♀️🚵‍♀️ – live up to what friends expect, time spent with friends, active in sport, people can be trusted 

The Materialistic Values Recipe 🤑 – work hard, save money, aim to be rich and successful

The Political Values Recipe 👮‍♂️- civic responsibility, member of political party, confidence in political system

The Prosocial and Environmental Values Recipe 🌳 – do something good for society and environment, give part of income for environment, voluntary work 

The Religious Values Recipe – importance of god, church as source of support and knowledge, church attendance

These are by no means the only possible recipes for life, but those that were able to be extracted from the data set, across the different regions. 


The regions

The following regions were included in the analysis:

Western – high per capita incomes, democratic, Christian background (e.g. Australia, France, Netherlands, USA)

Latin America – middle income, more or less democratic, Christian background (e.g. Argentina, Chile, Mexico)

Confucian – advanced economies, democratic, Confucian and Buddhist background (e.g Japan, South Korea, Taiwan)

Ex-communist – middle income, ex-communist, Christian backgrounds (e.g. Armenia, Estonia, Hungary, Poland)

Communist (i.e. China, Vietnam)

Not a complete list I realise, but the regions for which the authors had useful data.


What I took from the study

There were 3 things that stood out to me from the study. Three things that I will embed into my own ongoing thinking about values and culture. 

1️⃣ The first is that three of the recipes (Traditional Family Values, Friendship and Leisure Values, Prosocial and Environmental Values) were consistently linked to higher levels of life satisfaction, regardless of region.  

I think of these as values that might connect us, regardless of where we live and/or where we’ve come from. In a multicultural environment such as that here at Flinders, it’s nice (and useful) to think of these as connection points. If family, friends, fun and doing good for society are part of your value system, then these are a) likely contributing to positive life satisfaction and b) constitute a potential reliable connection point between you and other people.   

2️⃣ The second is that the other three recipes (Materialistic, Political, Religious) were only linked to positive life satisfaction under certain circumstances. For example, materialistic values only benefitted life satisfaction in regions of low income/wealth (e.g. ex-communist countries). In more wealthy economies, materialistic values didn’t have much impact, perhaps even a negative impact. 

Strong political values were linked to positive life satisfaction if those values were consistent with the political values of the country/region. Live in a communist country and have a strong connection to the party? Well then, that will mean greater life satisfaction. But if your political values are in opposition to the ruling party, that is likely to lead to lower life satisfaction.  

What about religious values? Similar to political values, holding religious values in a culture that supports and celebrates those values (e.g. Christianity in Latin America) = positive life satisfaction. 

This is what I was referring to in the question I opened the article with – “Do you feel like the things you hold to be important in life are the same things that your family or community or culture or government hold to be important?” It seems some values aren’t inherently favourable or unfavourable, but seem to depend a bit on the level of fit between the values the individual holds and the cultural/political environment in which they live. 

3️⃣ The third and final idea I took from the findings of this study was that some recipes seem to provide a buffer effect against limited resources and income. I’m not suggesting they’d counteract poverty, but reduced income might have less of an impact for someone with strong family and religious values. An example is Latin America, where life satisfaction scores are significantly higher than would be predicted on income per capita (i.e. a measure of wealth). Strong family and religious values are proposed to be at least part of the explanation of this.  


Your values

Have you given much thought to your values?

As you read this, did a particular recipe (or recipes) resonate more with you?

Values can be a useful thing to explore in terms of helping you understand what drives you, what you believe in, what is important to you. 

If you are interested in learning a little more about values, the VIA character survey can be a good starting point. You can complete the basic questionnaire for free (don’t pay for extra reports unless you are really keen). The questionnaire uses the term ‘strengths’ but there is suitable overlap with values to make it a good values exercise. The results will help you identify what you hold to be important and trigger you to ask yourself – am I living my life in accordance with these values/strengths?

The research we just discussed might then encourage you to ask the follow-up question – to what extent are my strengths/values a good fit with my family, culture, country?

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