Measuring Well-Being, While Treating Autonomy as a Value: A Literature Review

What are values and how can they be operationalized for the empirical social sciences? The University of Malmö’s graduate student Irina Widmer traces debates on how to measure well-being. In her blog post, she focusses specifically on the value of autonomy. How relevant has it been for measurements of well-being?

Irina A. Widmer, University of Malmö/ University of Neuchâtel

Do conceptions of well-being vary across societies – and, if yes, how seriously should we take these variations? Felicia Huppert and Timothy So’s social psychology article on “Flourishing” points to the need to analyse well-being in a specific context and to pay attention to “cultural differences in well-being”. Alex Linley et al. came to the challenging conclusion that well-being might be measured with the same tool in different groups (gender, ethnicity, age), the context having little influence on the outcome of the study. Due to a missing common definition of well-being, the range of values which are included to measure well-being varies greatly from one study to another. Huppert and So attempt to build an objective definition of well-being, based on positive mental health criteria, defined as the opposite of internationally accepted symptoms for depression and anxiety. This “medical diagnosis” seems promising; nevertheless, some values considered central in many other methodologies are left out, notably autonomy.

To discuss which values should be included in measures for well-being, it is important to understand what a value is in the first place. In an encyclopaedic definition, values are: “Principles or standards of behaviour; one’s judgement of what is important in life”. In this sense, values can be defined as needs and are far less numerous than the practices and symbols attached to them. Therefore, when conceptualizing values themselves “one can look for universalizing tendencies and a sense of unity of culture, even a world culture” (Bachika 2011: 209). However, the expression of values in terms of symbolism varies between social groups. In other words, different practices can cover common aims or values. Following this, most research on values in social sciences and social psychology position themselves against the idea that a link exists between a given culture and specific value(s).

So, is autonomy a value? According to this definition, yes, but what does that mean? Len Doyal and Ian Gough define autonomy as the capacity to make enlightened decisions for one’s actions and how to proceed. In other words, the idea of autonomy implies that individuals are agents having the required knowledge to freely make their choices. Autonomous agents can act without relying on others, but one might as well decide to conform to external decisions, or to rely on someone else’s judgement, as implied by the Lexico dictionary definition of autonomy as “having the freedom to act independently”. In this sense, even leaving aside autonomy as a central aim across societies, it is still an underlying condition for the realisation of other values that define well-being, such as security and freedom. Following this, André Iteanu claims that: “[V]alues and hierarchy cannot be separated”. Therefore, to adhere to common values, a group needs to go through a selection and classification process.

But is autonomy a universal value? Reimon Bachika warns against over-evaluating similarities in values worldwide, while emphasizing individual autonomy as a central value: “Absolutizing specific values could create an unacceptable bias. Individual autonomy must be guaranteed”. Like Bachika, most authors consider autonomy to be a central human value. By contrast, Huppert and So are among the small number of authors who challenge this idea of autonomy as a “universal” value. They explain that their theory of “flourishing” integrates most of the values covered by other social sciences studies on well-being. However, these authors point to missing “constructs of autonomy or self-determination” in their approach and explain it as follows: “Autonomy was not included in our list of features because its opposite is not specified in DSM or ICD diagnostic criteria for depression or anxiety. That is, loss of autonomy is not regarded as a symptom of these disorders”. Besides this, Huppert and So consider autonomy as an expression of Western values, which, according to them, is not attributed the same importance in other contexts, for example, in “collectivist countries such as many in Asia and Africa”.

However, most research in the Social Sciences considers autonomy a universal central value to measure well-being. For instance, Christian Welzel and Ronald Inglehart argue that contextual opportunities determine individual autonomy and the importance given to it, in modelling well-being. Based on the theory of social systems Dunbar et al. developed in 1999, Welzel and Inglehart point out that “people adapt their maximization strategies in response to the shifting needs and opportunities of life”. Therefore, culture cannot be understood as the determinant of these maximization strategies, but a change in values can. Welzel and Inglehart observe that when life conditions are too harsh to focus on something other than survival, individuals do not award much importance to autonomy. They explain that with increasing opportunities in life, individuals tend to value their autonomy more as a source of well-being, as evidenced by changes in their strategies for the maximization of well-being (i.e. individuals will almost always prefer a larger set of opportunities over a smaller one). In Welzel and Inglehart’s view, autonomy is universal, in the sense that individuals will find it more important as their set of opportunities increases. Therefore, cultural preferences constitute no justification for the different valuation of autonomy, but variations of opportunities do.

Self-Determination Theory & the Human-Scale Development Paradigm

Let me now move to an analysis of how self-determination theory and the Human-Scale Development paradigm mobilise the value of autonomy. Self-determination theory – SDT – considers three needs as common to humanity as a whole: “autonomy, competence, and relatedness” (Deci and Ryan 1985; 2000 as cited in Chirkov et al.). SDT theory stipulates an improvement of well-being once societies offer conditions where these needs can be fulfilled by individuals. In this regard, each society chooses a set of satisfiers, which seem the most appropriate for the satisfaction of these universal needs. By defining universal needs, SDT theory takes the same view as the Human-Scale Development paradigm – H-SD. However, the universal needs specified by the two approaches differ. For both, human needs are constant across cultural contexts, but what varies is the way these needs are responded to.

SDT theory simply points out that satisfaction of universal needs is an essential condition for lasting well-being and flourishing. H-SD adds an explanation of variations of well-being and autonomy satisfaction across human groups, variations which, according to the H-SD paradigm, follow from the specific “sets of satisfiers” selected by a specific society (Cruz et al. 2009). Satisfiers can be understood as all actions or adjustments undertaken to meet the identified need. To illustrate, to fulfil needs expressed as values, for example “protection”, satisfiers might be: adaptability, autonomy, equilibrium, solidarity, insurance systems, savings, social security, health systems, rights, family, work, cooperation, prevention, planning, taking care of, curing, helping, living spaces, social environments, dwellings, etc. As a further example, the need for “freedom” can be met through the satisfiers’ autonomy, self-esteem or self-determination.

However, the claim made by H-SD paradigm, that variations in the degree of well-being and autonomy result solely from different choices made by different societies seems to overlook historical context. To take one example, former coloniser states increased the general well-being of their inhabitants at the expense of their colonies. The latter had no choice in the process. To postulate that the decades or centuries of colonisation have no consequences on the variations observed at present sounds far from convincing as a claim. Thus, the longitudinal perspective is lacking in the argument made by Cruz et al.

Autonomy and Well-Being

After discussing the methodology of self-determination theory compared to the Human-Scale Development paradigm, in the following paragraphs, I move more specifically to the analysis of autonomy as a value. Comparing Human-Scale Development paradigm and self-determination theory reveals that autonomy underlies many other values. To illustrate my point, the H-SD paradigm constructs autonomy as a means to meet other needs, such as protection and freedom, as mentioned earlier. In this sense, autonomy serves as a motivation and a direction for action, while being defined as something important, albeit culturally. It is the sole value within the H-SD paradigm with such a double function, which underlies its centrality. Similarly, SDT defines only three universal values, and autonomy is one of them, placing it as a central objective. Welzel and Inglehart’s thinking comes to the same conclusion about the centrality of autonomy in the chain of developments leading to a higher degree of well-being. 

Other scholars challenge the necessity to include autonomy at all in the features measuring well-being. Chirkov et al. note, indeed, that “a basic need for autonomy has been widely disputed”. To support this side of the argument, Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper studied patterns of motivation and autonomy in different ethnic groups of American children. The results of their study invalidate the widespread idea of autonomy as a universal value. They observed, indeed, contrasting behaviours across ethnic groups lines :

Anglo American children showed less intrinsic motivation when choices were made for them by others than when they made their own choices, […]. In contrast, Asian American children proved most intrinsically motivated when choices were made for them by trusted authority figures or peers”.

Iyengar and Lepper’s observations suggest that compliance with one’s reference group, in the form of acting in conformity with a choice made by a trusted authority figure, might be more relevant in collectivist societies than autonomy. Chirkov et al. underline that “cultural values for autonomy are opposed to those for relatedness and group cohesion”.

Julie Newton points out that culture plays an important role “as a conditioning factor that influences the structuring of society as a whole”. In this view, different cultures might arrive at different hierarchies of values, and therefore may value autonomy differently. This is in line with Mike Featherstone’s reflections on values, that they are produced and defined by events stimulating emotional response. Hans Joas formulates the hypothesis “of a high level of cultural integration and that people internalize cultural values and norms in socialization”. Bachika adds that the specific societal context an individual is familiar with is comforting: “People feel at home with these practices if they have been exposed to them since childhood or if they have consciously chosen to identify with them at a later stage of life”.

So, from this brief literature review, what can we conclude about the importance of autonomy in measuring well-being? First, none of the articles contradict the claim that autonomy is an important value in some contexts. But some authors argue for different emphases on autonomy, depending on one’s cultural context and socialization. However, the observation that compliance with one’s reference group might be more relevant in collectivist societies than self-determination does not discredit autonomy as an important underlying value. Indeed, to make decisions without outside influence, and to value doing so, autonomy seems a critical condition.

To sum up on how relevant the value of autonomy is to measure well-being, Welzel and Inglehart underline that autonomy is crucial for analysing well-being as a goal and process. Newton also adheres to this view. She adds that exactly because the expression of values varies across contexts, comparing the autonomy, agency and capability of individuals will constitute a significant step in understanding “how structures shape what people have, their goals and aspirations and the choices people make in achieving goals”. On the question of whether autonomy is a universal value, however, Newton recognises that further research is needed to determine how autonomy is constructed at local levels and to understand its role on individuals’ well-being.

This leads back to Iteanu’s argument that values should be hierarchized. And therefore, I emphasize, once again, the special nature of the value of autonomy as an underlying prerequisite for other values. This is where I claim that autonomy as a value is paradoxical in nature: to define its values, a group needs to be able to act autonomously, however, autonomy might not be retained as a highly important value for this group. This might suggest a universality of autonomy as a means, but not as an aim.

To conclude, most studies underline the relevance of autonomy in measuring well-being, in a direct or indirect link, while the arguments speaking against the universal importance of autonomy lack the force to discredit it.

Literature mentioned in this article

Bachika, R., (2011). Symbolism and values: Rationality and irrationality of culture. Current Sociology, vol. 59 (2): 200-213.

Chirkov, V., Ryan, R. M., Kim, Y., Kaplan, U., (2003). Differentiating autonomy from individualism and independence: A self-determination theory perspective on internalization of cultural orientations and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 84 (1): 97-110. American Psychological Association, Inc.

Cruz, I., Stahel, A., and Max-Neef, M., (2009). Towards a systemic development approach Building on the Human-Scale Development paradigm. Ecological Economics, vol. 68: 2021-2030.

Doyal, L., and Gough, I. (1991). A theory of human needs. Macmillan: London.

Featherstone, M., (2011). Societal value formation and the value of life. Current Sociology, vol. 59 (2): 119-134.

Huppert, F. A., and So, T. T. C., (2013). Flourishing across Europe: Application of a new conceptual framework for defining well-being. Social Indicators Research, vol. 110: 837-861.

Iteanu, A., (2013). The two conceptions of value. HAU: Journal of Ethnographical Theory, 3 (1): 155-171.

Iyengar, S. S., and Lepper, M. R., (1999). Rethinking the value of choice: A cultural perspective on intrinsic motivation, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 76 (3): 349-366.

Joas, H., (2000). The genesis of values. Cambridge: Polity.

Kachanoff, F. J., Taylor, D. M., Caouette, J., Khullar, T., and Wohl, M. J. A., (2019). The chains of all my people are the chains on me: Restrictions to collective autonomy undermine the personal autonomy and psychological well-being of group members. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 116 (1): 141-165. American Psychological Association.

Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Wood, A. M., Osborne, G., and Hurling, R., (2009). Measuring happiness: The higher order factor structure of subjective and psychological well-being measures. Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 47: 878-884.

Newton, J. (2007). Structures, regimes, and wellbeing. WeD Working Paper 30. ESRC Research Group on Wellbeing in Developing Countries.

Welzel, C., and Inglehart, R., (2010). Agency, values, and well-being: A human development model. Social Indicators Research, vol. 97: 43-63. Springer.

Irina A. Widmer is a graduate student in social sciences with a focus on migration studies at the University of Malmö and the University of Neuchâtel. She can be contacted at irina.a.widmer[at]

This contribution is based on course work in the course “Norms and Values in International Migration” that was taught as part of the Migration Studies Master program IMER at Malmö University. The course was taught by two NoVaMigra researchers, Christian Fernández and Brigitte Suter.

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