Interest in happiness
Happiness is a highly valued matter. Most people agree that it is better to enjoy life than to suffer, and endorse public policies that aim at creating greater happiness for a greater number of people. Though not everybody accepts the utilitarian axiom that happiness is ultimately the only value, the desirability of happiness as such is almost undisputed. This appears in high ranks for happiness in survey studies about value priorities.
The aim of creating greater happiness for a greater number requires understanding of happiness. First of all it demands that we can grasp the main determinants of happiness; not only what makes people happy, but also the reason why. Secondly, we also must have a view on consequences of happiness, in order to detect possible self-destructive effects and to appraise synergy with other values.
Efforts to understand human happiness have absorbed a lot of thought. Happiness was a major issue in early Greek philosophy and several later philosophical schools. Currently the subject gains attention in the social sciences, in particular in Social Indicators Research. Papers on happiness fill many bookshelves.
Empirical study of happiness
Philosophical reflections with happiness produced a lot of ideas, but little operational knowledge. In fact, it raised more questions than answers. Many theoretical controversies could not be solved by the logic of reasoning alone; usually, empirical validation was not possible.
The advent of the social sciences promised a breakthrough. New methods for empirical research opened the possibility to test theories of happiness and to identify conditions for happiness inductively. This instigated a lot of research. In the last decades some 3000 empirical studies have considered the matter; in the beginning mainly as a side-issue in studies about health and ageing, but currently also as a main subject.
This stream of research has not yet crystallized into a sound body of knowledge on happiness. Preliminary questions about conceptualization and measurement are now fairly well solved, but the understanding of processes and conditions involved in determinants and consequences of happiness is still very incomplete and tentative. There are several reasons why the new stream of empirical research on happiness has not yet brought the expected break-through. In addition to complexities in the subject matter, there are several practical problems.
The first and most simple reason for the lack of progress is lack of coordination. The research effort is highly redundant; the same issues are investigated over and over again, in the same way. As a result the range of variables considered is still rather small and the methodological progress slow.
A related problem is that the research findings are very scattered. Most observations are in fact irretrievably bibliographical. Consequently, many of the findings get lost.
The second reason is the confusion of tongues. Words like happiness and life-satisfaction denote different phenomena. Currently most investigators define it as subjective appreciation of life-as-a-whole. However, some authors also include objective notions of mental health and appropriate behavior. Consequently, indicators of happiness used in empirical research tend to be different and often incomparable. Getting an overview of the research findings requires first of all a grouping of studies that measured the same matter.
A more basic reason is in the dominant research approach. The bulk of empirical happiness studies consists of cross-sections in a particular country. Typically investigators try to identify conditions for happiness by their correlates. For instance, the observation in American studies that the happy tend to have high incomes is seen to mean that money buys happiness and that the basic underlying mental process is social comparison. This approach falls short for several reasons.
Firstly, correlations say little about cause and effect. If rich Americans tend to be happier, this does not prove that money buys happiness, because happiness can also boost earning chances. There are in fact strong indications that a positive appreciation of life facilitates social functioning. Separation of cause and effect requires panel studies. Such studies are scarce as yet, and the data that is available is again, scattered.
Secondly, conditions for happiness are probably not the same at all times and at all places. Neither are its consequences. Though there are obviously several universal requirements for a happy life (such as food and possibly meaning), most effects seem to be contingent on characteristics of the person and situation. For instance, the correlation between happiness and income may restrict to materialistic persons in socially unequal countries. Usually, such contingencies can not be detected in single studies in one country. They can be identified only if many studies are compared in a systematic meta-analysis.
Last, current correlational studies in one nation cannot grasp macro-social conditions for happiness. The focus is on differences in happiness within nations; they are blind for variation in happiness between nations. Therefore, happiness research has as yet little relevance for major political discussions such as the priority of continuous economic growth or the benefits of human rights protection. Investigation of such matters requires cross-national studies, preferably in a semi-longitudinal design. Such studies are scarce as yet, but we can do a lot by comparing the available one-nation studies.
Aims of the database
The World Database of Happiness is meant to overcome these problems.
First of all its Bibliography of Happiness provides a fairly complete inventory of contemporary publications. This may help to get an overview of the field and to trace literature on specific issues. I hope this will reduce redundance somewhat. The related Directory of Investigators lists addresses of scientists who have published on happiness and is meant to facilitate communication in the field.
Secondly, the database provides three homogenous collections of research findings; two collections of distributional findings (Happiness in Nations and Happiness in Publics) and one collection of correlational findings (Correlates of Happiness). All these collections are based on the same concept of happiness and consequently on the same array of happiness indicators. Happiness is defined as `the degree to which an individual judges the overall quality of his life-as-a-whole positively', in short: how well one likes the life one lives. All indicators that fit this definition are enumerated in a collection of acceptable measures (Item Bank).
The data for these collections are largely drawn from publications on happiness in books and journal articles. However, this database is not limited to findings that reached `authorized' publications. Grey reports and mere datafiles are included as well.
One reason for this strategy is that many findings that may be relevant in a meta-analysis are not published by the original investigator because they appeared not to be relevant in the context of his report. Another reason is that the publication process involves some systematic biasses, one of which is under-report of non-correlations.
By deliberately including `unpublished' data this database allows a more realistic view of conditions for happiness. Therefore, meta-analyses based on this database can yield conclusions that differ from impressions based on narrative literature surveys.
The World Databsse of Happiness is described in more detail in the following papers:
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