They say money can’t buy happiness – and now a new study of Indigenous peoples around the world backs up that assertion.

People living in small-scale societies on the fringes of the modern world lead lives as happy and satisfying as folks from wealthy, technologically advanced nations, researchers report Feb. 5 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Surprisingly, many populations with very low monetary incomes report very high average levels of life satisfaction, with scores similar to those in wealthy countries,” said lead researcher Eric Galbraith, a professor with McGill University in Montreal.

This runs counter to the notion that economic growth is a sure-fire way to increase the well-being of people in low-income countries, researchers noted.

Global surveys have found that people in wealthier countries tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction than those in poorer countries, researchers said in background notes.

However, these global polls tend to overlook people in societies where the exchange of money plays a minimal role in everyday life, and where livelihoods depend directly on nature, researchers said.

For this study, researchers surveyed nearly 3,000 people from Indigenous or primitive communities at 19 sites around the world.

Only 64% of the surveyed households had any cash, researchers said.

And yet, their average life satisfaction scores were 6.8 on a 10-point scale across all communities, and four had an average score higher than 8 — on par with happiness found in wealthy Scandinavian countries, the researchers noted.

“This is so, despite many of these societies having suffered histories of marginalization and oppression,” researchers wrote.

Based on these results, the research team concluded that human societies can support very satisfactory lives without necessarily requiring lots of material 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,” said senior researcher Victoria Reyes-Garcia, an anthropologist with the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain.

Researchers said they can’t say why these communities report high levels of life satisfaction.

Prior research would suggest that family, community, relationships, spirituality and connections to nature contribute to this happiness, “but it is possible that the important factors differ significantly between societies or, conversely, that a small subset of factors dominate everywhere,” Galbraith said.

“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 added in a university news release.

More information

The United Nations has more about world happiness.

SOURCE: Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, news release, Feb. 5, 2024