FAQ's about happiness


What is ‘happiness’?
Happiness is defined as 'the degree to which an individual judges the overall quality of her/his life as-a-whole favorably'. In other words: how much s/he likes the life he leads. This definition is discussed in more detail in the introductory text on the conceptual scope of this database, see section 2 of the Introductory text to the Bibliography

Can happiness be measured?
Thus defined, happiness is something that we have in mind and that can be measured by questioning. The affective component of happiness (hedonic level of affect) can also be measured using non-verbal indications.

What is the best method for measuring happiness?
There is no one best method, adequacy depending on the aims of the investigation and on respondents. In large scale surveys one can do with single questions, in small scale experiments the Experience Sampling Method is often preferable, while in studies among small children behavioral observation is most appropriate

Can I trust self-reports of happiness?
Like any self-reports, self-reports of happiness are liable to various distortions. Still these distortions appear to be modest. Research has shown reasonable validity and reliability.
The literature on this matter can be found in section 2 of the Bibliography of Happiness and a good review papers is Ed Diener’s. ‘Assessing Subjective Well-Being: Progress and Opportunities’ in Social Indicators Research, 1994, Vol. 31, 103 - 157

Is unhappiness the rule?
Most people appear to be happy in the present day world, in most countries the average score on a 0 to 10 scale is above 6 and in some western nations the average is around 8. Still a lot of people are unhappy, and the average in several African countries is below 4.
An overview of average Happiness in Nations is on the latest Rank Report

Does happiness decline in modern society?
No, happiness is on the rise. Not only has average happiness risen somewhat over the last 30 years, but due to rising longevity the number of happy life years has increased spectacularly.
A recent paper is ‘Rising happiness in nations 1946-2004. By Ruut Veenhoven and Michael Hagerty, in Social Indicators Research, 2006, vol. 77, 1-16.More literature can be found in the Bibliography of Happiness, section 5a2 on Trends in happiness

Is happiness relative?
Comparison theory holds that happiness is relative, but that theory appears to be wrong. We do not assess how happy we are by comparing with the Jones and neither does happiness depend on meeting culturally variable standard of the good life. Happiness is more like health and depends on how well we thrive.
This point was elaborated by Ruut Veenhoven in the paper Is happiness relative? In Social Indicators Research, vol. 24, pp. 1-34. The literature on this subject is enumerated in section 4i1.2 of the Bibliography of Happiness

Are we born happy or unhappy?
Happiness depends partly on genetic endowments, both aptness to feel good or bad and various traits that affect the ability to cope with the problems of life. It is difficult to estimate the size of the genetic factor, even in studies among identical twins. Estimates vary between 20 and 80%. One of the problems is that genetic variation appears more prominent in when variation in environmental conditions is small, which is typically the case in modern affluent societies. Still, follow-up studies in such societies shows considerable variation in happiness over the life-time and responsiveness to major life-events such as marriage and widowhood. The mass unhappiness in some African nations (average below 4 on a 0 to 10 scale) illustrates the relevance of environmental conditions. Some societies are so miserable that even born optimists get depressed.
The literature on this matter is rubricated in section 4j4 of the Bibliography of Happiness.


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