Happiness as fairness: The relationship between national life satisfaction and social justice in EU countries

Salvatore Di Martino

Isaac Prilleltensky

Journal of Community Psychology

First published: 06 July 2020 https://doi.org/10.1002/jcop.22398




Despite growing interest in the relation between social justice and life satisfaction, there is a paucity of quantitative investigations linking these two constructs, even in the field of Community Psychology. To bridge this gap, we tested the relationship between the EU Social Justice Index (SJI; 2008–2017) and life satisfaction across 28 European Union (EU) countries, in a series of multilevel multinomial logistic regression models with cumulative logit link function. The SJI proved one of the strongest predictors of national life satisfaction, after controlling for time variation and other well‐established country‐level determinants. Our findings lend support to the hypothesis that social justice is highly related to life satisfaction. We invite scholars to explore this relationship further. We also recommend that EU governments strive to promote fairer social conditions to increase national happiness.


Over the last few decades, an increasing number of governments around the world have put the maximization of national life satisfaction on their political agenda. Recent attempts to replace gross domestic product (GDP) with other measures that better capture national welfare are driving attention towards subjective measures of well‐being. Some examples include the well‐known Stiglitz report (Stiglitz, Sen, & Fitoussi, 2012) and the Gross National Happiness Index proposed by the state of Bhutan (Ura & Galay, 2004).

This surge of interest is also prompting the production of ever more accurate explanations of what predicts life satisfaction to guide public policy (Dolan, Layard, & Metcalfe, 2011). A portion of the mainstream happiness literature—which has largely been led by Positive Psychology—considers internal and interpersonal resources such as character strengths, social relations, and motivation as key elements of long‐lasting life fulfilment (Lyubomirsky, 2008; Seligman, 20112002). However, some have been very critical of this approach to happinessfor neglecting the fundamental effect that conditions of social justice, inequality, and power have on people’s happiness and well‐being (Arcidiacono & Di Martino, 2016; Di Martino, Eiroa‐Orosa, & Arcidiacono, 2017). Indeed, an increasing number of studies offer evidence that sociopolitical conditions related to social justice play a strong role in shaping people’s life satisfaction (Radcliff, 2013).

Community Psychology (CP) has always distinguished itself for considering social justice as one of its core elements in the struggle to promote well‐being for individuals, communities, and society at large (Kloos et al., 2012; Prilleltensky, 2001; Prilleltensky & Nelson, 1997). From the perspective of CP, social justice pertains to the “people’s right to self‐determination; to a fair allocation of resources; to live in peace, with freedom from constraints, and to be treated fairly and equitably” (Kagan, Burton, Duckett, Lawthom, & Siddiquee, 2011, p. 37). This vision is also deeply rooted in CP practice, which is aimed at promoting primary prevention and empowerment (Fondacaro & Weinberg, 2002), as well as attending to the most vulnerable sectors of society (García‐Ramírez, Balcázar, & de Freitas, 2014).

Given these premises, it will come as a surprise to learn that CP lacks substantial quantitative evidence to demonstrate a direct link between social justice and life satisfaction, particularly at the macrolevel of analysis. Except for a few examples at the microlevel (see Capone, Donizzetti, & Petrillo, 2018; Paloma, García‐Ramírez, & Camacho, 2014) it is hard to find quantitative studies in CP, which place social justice in relation to happiness or well‐being. As Prilleltensky (2012) has pointed out: “After all, researchers studying subjective well‐being rarely if ever invoke justice in their explanations. In most cases, culture, age, marriage, social support, unemployment, and adaptation figure prominently on the list of well‐being predictors; justice, however, does not” (p. 2).

A possible reason for this is that the value of social justice has been so ingrained in the ethos and practice of CP so as to become self‐evident (Fondacaro & Weinberg, 2002). Although this has undoubtedly contributed to the promotion of well‐being through social change (Evans, Rosen, & Nelson, 2014), it has resulted in paucity of investigations on the very nature of social justice (Drew, Bishop, & Syme, 2002). One of the questions left unanswered is how much societal gain in terms of happiness and well‐being can be obtained when conditions of social justice are improved in society.

Other scholarships—particularly economy and sociology—have done little more to shed light on the relationship between social justice and life satisfaction at the macrolevel. Some general aspects of social justice such as freedom of choice and capabilities (Bavetta, Navarra, & Maimone, 2014; Veenhoven, 2010), as well as satisfaction of basic human needs (Tay & Diener, 2011), have been linked to the experience of happiness around the world.

Other studies have focused on specific elements of social justice such as income inequality (Berg & Veenhoven, 2010; Ngamaba, 2017; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2018) and quality of governance (Helliwell & Huang, 2008; Ott, 2010).

However, those studies have employed only a small set of variables that account for social justice. The literature has repeatedly suggested that social justice is a multidimensional construct encompassing many aspects of what constitutes a fair society (Tyler, Boeckmann, Smith, & Huo, 1997). As such, a few selected indicators are not sufficient to unfold the complex relationship between social justice and national life satisfaction. For instance, Ngamaba, Panagioti, and Armitage (2018) have found in a recent systematic and meta‐analytic review of the literature that one of the aspects of social justice, namely income inequality, does not constitute on its own a strong determinant of people’s life satisfaction and happiness worldwide. In that regard, Schneider (2016) suggests drawing from the wider social justice literature to better understand how people evaluate inequality and how they respond to it both emotionally and behaviourally (p. 15).

In addition, most studies at the macrolevel have primarily relied on objective measures of social justice. However, as Tyler et al. (1997) eloquently pointed out, “justice is not just a set of principles derived from objective sources … it is also an idea that exists within the minds of all individuals” (p. 4). Therefore, subjective indicators of social justice also deserve consideration.

To bridge a gap in the academic literature, this study will compare a composite index of social justice with the life satisfaction of individuals at the macrolevel of analysis. Our goal is to show the unexplored link between people’s life satisfaction and fair conditions in society.

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About S. R. Zelenz 119 Articles
S.R. Zelenz has worked in education for 20 years. Working with students from all walks of life, cultures, races, and social diversity, Zelenz’s research in Educational Leadership led to finding a better way to approach learning for students with trauma histories. Many were juvenile offenders, gang members, diagnosed with varying behavioral disorders, or had family histories of violence, murder, or narcissistic parenting. This research could not be effectively accomplished without further understanding: how epigenetic trauma inheritance may be impacting these students; how brain development from trauma may be impacting their behavioral and emotional development; as well as deep understanding of psychology and its varying classifications for behavioral and personality disorders. The goal is to find solutions for changing the conversation and making a real difference for these students. She has also worked with nonprofits of varying focus areas for the last 25 years. Her undergraduate degree in Arts Administration and Music prepared her for managing nonprofits of any size as well as procuring funding so that they can achieve their goals. Pairing her nonprofit background with her education background, she has been able to make a difference for over 200 nonprofits worldwide, written curriculum for schools across the globe, and assisted many arts organizations through performance and management.