What values are good for young people?
What values and goals young people embrace has a major impact on the identity they develop, how they function, and how good they feel. If so, then the next question is important: what kinds of values and goals are good for us and which are less good? Broadly speaking, there are two types of answers for which there is some evidence but which are at odds with each other: the self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2017) and the person-environment fit perspective (Kristof-Brown et al., 2005).
Self-Determination Theory (SDT)
Self-determination theory assumes that intrinsic values and goals are better for people than extrinsic ones. Intrinsic goals focus on things that satisfy our basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. We value these things inherently, they are an end in themselves. Extrinsic goals focus on instrumental returns, such as money, fame, or power. These revenues are tools in the sense that they can be used to achieve something else (eg buying an expensive car). They are not an end in themselves. Previously, I've mentioned research suggesting that intrinsic goals are better for us.
The person-environment fit perspective (POF)
This perspective assumes that any type of values and goals can flourish as long as they align with the values and goals emphasized in the individual's environment. Multiple studies have shown that individuals whose values and goals fit the culture they live in, whether it be an organizational or national culture, generally feel and function better.
World Value Survey research among young people
Van den Broeck (2019) tried to use the World Value Survey to find an answer to the question which of the two perspectives mentioned above is the most correct. Based on this data, the researchers mapped out the average values per country (for 54 countries) for intrinsic and extrinsic values.
In addition, they investigated the relationship between these 'country values' and the individual well-being of young people aged 18 to 30 (N = 25442), taking into account their individual values. They formulated two sets of hypotheses. The first set was based on the SDT, the second on the POF.
Results largely confirm the SDT
The results broadly confirmed the expectations based on the SDT. Young people are generally happier and more satisfied with their lives when they have intrinsic values and live in countries where intrinsic values are more emphasized and extrinsic values are seen as less important.
Having said this, it is important to mention two seemingly surprising results that came out of this study. First, young people living in countries that emphasize extrinsic values generally say they feel happier when they set extrinsic goals than when they have goals that are at odds with the prevailing culture. Yet these young people in these countries are generally less happy and satisfied than young people in countries with intrinsic goals. Second, a positive relationship was found between extrinsic and self-reported health.
These surprising results may be related to a biasing effect that can occur with self-reported data. An illustration of this is described in a new book by Pickett & Wilkinson (2019). In countries with greater income inequality, there is greater competition for status. Inhabitants of such countries generally find it more important to communicate a positive image of themselves. This can lead to the surprising situation that in a country like Japan, fewer people rate their own health as good than in America, while people in the latter country have a shorter life expectancy. There is strong evidence for the paradoxical phenomenon that people in countries with many social problems try to protect their self-esteem by describing themselves more positively than people in countries where things are better in many respects.
Conclusion and implications
Overall, the SDT appeared to better explain the results. Based on this, it seems advisable for individuals to embrace intrinsic values and goals and to encourage our children in this direction as well. Changing organizational and national cultures in the direction of intrinsic value cultures also seems advisable.
In other words, let's put less importance on and expect less happiness and satisfaction from money, fame, and power and more from doing interesting, fun, and useful things with and for other people.