Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Pursuit of Happiness

Happiness is a very subjective term or concept that is extremely difficult to define or identify as definitively being present but I’m going to have a go at discussing it anyway. Don’t worry; however, I wouldn’t dare mention the term ‘N _ ture vs. N_ _ ture’. The Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven has written extensively on this topic and his work gives some interesting insights.

Is happiness relative? For me happiness is largely relative. I believe this is why a large amount of people in the western world are unhappy despite having pretty much all their material needs fulfilled all the time. Their happiness and fulfilment is only relative to that of their peers, family, friends and neighbours. Veenhoven assesses this belief and finds it to be inaccurate because the concept of 'overall happiness' is too mixed up with the that of 'contentment'.

Contentment is how we assess our living conditions and this is something that is indeed very relative to the conditions of those around us. 'Overall happiness' is much more than just being content with our living standards as compared to our neighbours or friends. Veenhoven finds plenty of evidence to support this. A rather obvious example is that people tend to be much less happy when living under conditions of poverty, war and isolation. So in this sense happiness is much more closely linked to basic biological needs (food, shelter) than a relative sense of one’s living conditions. (1)

Is happiness a trait? Or is it a temporary state of mind? I think the answer lies somewhere in between but in this paper Veenhoven examines the question with respect to social policy in nation states. He finds that happiness is unstable in the short term with a scant genetic basis and so cannot be considered an innate character trait. With respect to nations – happiness is fairly stable although susceptible to dramatic changes in some examples. Also, levels of happiness in a country correlate directly to the living conditions. He concludes that it is worthwhile for social policy to strive towards greater happiness for citizens as the conditions for happiness can be created. (2) Veenhoven backs this claim up with this 2003 paper. (3)

Of course many questions remain but I find this type of enquiry where we step back from our own personal situation and look at something like happiness in society at large to be very useful. It would be refreshing to hear politicians and economists talk more in terms of increasing the happiness in society rather than our GDP or employment rate because at the end of the day it is happiness that we're all striving for at some level.

(1) Veenhoven, R. (1991). Is happiness relative?. Social Indicators Research,24(1), 1-34.
(2) Veenhoven, R. (1994). Is happiness a trait?. Social indicators research, 32(2), 101-160.
(3) Hagerty, M. R., & Veenhoven, R. (2003). Wealth and happiness revisited–growing national income does go with greater happiness. Social indicators research, 64(1), 1-27.

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