How much is enough in a perfect world? Cultural variation in ideal levels of happiness, pleasure, freedom, health, self-esteem, longevity, and inteligence
The maximization principle – that people aspire to the highest possible level of something good if all practical constraints are removed – is a common yet untested assumption about human nature. We predict that in holistic cultures –where contradiction, change and context are emphasized– ideal states of being for the self will be more moderate than in other cultures. In two studies (Ns=2392 and 6239) we asked: If participants could choose their ideal level of happiness, pleasure, freedom, health, self-esteem, longevity, and intelligence, what level would they choose? Consistent with predictions, maximization was less pronounced in holistic cultures; they aspired to less happiness, pleasure, freedom, health, selfesteem, longevity, and IQ than did members of other cultures. In contrast, no differences emerged on ideals for society. The studies show that the maximization principle is not a universal aspect of human nature, and that there are predictable cultural differences in people’s notions of perfection.
If people could attain unlimited amounts of good things – for example if they could choose their ideal levels of longevity, intelligence, freedom, self-esteem, health, pleasure, and happiness – what would they choose? One option – which we refer to as a maximization principle – is that people’s ideal worlds will comprise the maximum possible levels of things they consider positive. Maximization has been described as “the most basic, unexamined assumption about human nature” (Howard, 2000, p.511, see also Herrnstein, 1990).1 It carries the advantage of being intuitive: We know that people aspire to positive things, and that they have fundamental desires to stay alive (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991), to feel self-determined (Ryan & Deci, 2017), to be happy (Kesebir & Diener, 2008), to experience security (Maslow, 1943), and to have positive self-regard (Leary, Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995). So if people could achieve unlimited levels of life, liberty, happiness, and so forth, then why would they not aspire to it? This maximization principle heavily influenced rational choice theories of economics, with most neoclassical economists presuming that individuals wish to maximize their happiness through their consumption and investment choices.
Hornsey, M., Bain, P., Harris, E., Lebedeva, N., Kashima, E., Guan, Y., … , Blumen, S. (2018) How much is enough in a perfect world? Cultural variation in ideal levels of happiness, pleasure, freedom, health, self-esteem, longevity, and intelligence. Psychological Science