World Database of Happiness, Introduction to Bibliography

Chapter 2

The term 'happiness' carries many meanings and each of these meanings is described by different words. Hence it makes little sense to gather studies that merely use the word happiness as a key term. That would result in a collection of studies about different matters. We must first define the subject matter and then gather the literature on it, irrespective of terminology.

2.1 Definition of happiness

This bibliography is about the subjective appreciation of life, also called 'happiness', 'life-satisfaction' or 'psychological wellbeing', 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. The key terms in this definition may be elucidated as follows:

Degree: The word 'happiness' is not used to denote an optimal appreciation of life. It refers to a degree. Like the concepts of 'length' or 'weight' it denotes amounts of something. When we say a person is happy, we mean that s/he judges her/his life favourably rather than unfavourably.

Individual: The term happiness is used to describe the state of an individual person only: It does not apply to collectivities. Thus a nation cannot be said to be happy. At best, most of its citizens consider themselves happy.
Happiness denotes a subjective appreciation of life by an individual, therefore there is no given 'objective' standard for happiness. While a person who thinks s/he has a heart-condition may or may not have one, a person who thinks s/he is happy, really is happy.

Judges: The word 'happiness' is used where somebody has made an overall judgement about the quality of life. This implies an intellectual activity. Making an overall judgement implies assessing past experiences and estimating future experiences. Both require a marshalling of facts into a convenient number of cognitive categories. It also demands an evaluation of priorities and relative values. Thus happiness is not a simple sum of pleasures, but rather a cognitive construction which the individual puts together from his various experiences.
One consequence of this conceptualization is that the word 'happiness' can not be used for those who did not make up their mind. One cannot say whether a person is happy or not if s/he is intellectually unable to construct an overall judgment. Thus the concept cannot be used for animals, little children or retarded people.

Overall: The evaluation of life aimed at, is an overall judgment. It embodies all the criteria for appreciation which figure in the mind. Ancient hedonists used to equate happiness with sensory pleasures only. However, there are more modes of appreciation: evaluation also involves various cognitive standards such as aspirations, expectations and values, but they also depend on affective conditions such as moods and emotions. The word 'happiness' refers to a judgment which integrates all the appreciation criteria used. Thus the contention that one has all one ever desired, does not make a person happy. Despite all earthly endowments such a person may feel pain or be depressed. Similarly, the appraisal that life is 'exciting' does not necessarily mark one as happy either: life may be too exciting to be enjoyable.

Life-as-a-whole: We do not use the word 'happiness' to characterize specific aspects of life, such as marriage or work. 'Happiness' refers to life-as-a-whole. It covers past, present and anticipated experiences. This does not mean that all things ever experienced are given equal weight. Evaluation involves sifting and ordering. In this process some aspects may be emphasized and others ignored. Past life-experiences for example, seldom enter into the evaluation process in their original phenomenological Gestalt. What is taken into consideration is mostly a shallow representation of what one experienced previously.

His/her: The term 'happiness' concerns the evaluation of one's own life; not of life in general. A pessimistic 'Weltanschauung' does not necessarily characterize someone as 'unhappy'.

Favourably: Evaluations always embody appreciation; a conclusion as to whether one likes something or not. The term 'happiness' refers only to judgments concerning this aspect. Happiness judgments concern the dimension extending from appreciation to depreciation; from like to dislike. All humans are capable of appraisals of this kind. (Though not all humans can generalize all appraisals into a judgements of life-as-a-whole.)
This criterion of 'favourableness' concerns the appreciation involved in cognitive evaluations. On the other hand the term 'pleasantness' refers exclusively to direct affective experience. As such it is more characteristic of the affective component of happiness (to be discussed below) than of overall happiness itself.

2.2 Variants of happiness

When evaluating the favourableness of their lives, people tend to use two more or less distinct sources of information: their affects and their thoughts. We can 'observe' that we feel fine most of the time, and we can also 'judge' that life seems to meet our (conscious) demands. These apparaisals do not necessarily coincide. We may feel fine generally, but nevertheless be aware that we failed to realize our aspirations. Or we may have surpassed our aspirations, but nevertheless feel miserable. Using the word 'happiness' in both these cases would result in three different kinds of happiness; the overall judgment as described above and these two specific appraisals. Therefore three terms are used: 1) 'overall happiness', 2) 'hedonic level of affect' and 3) 'contentment'.

Overall happiness  is the concept defined above. It is the general judgment of life. The term 'overall' is used to emphasize the difference with the narrower 'components' of happiness below.

Hedonic level of affect is the degree to which various affects that people experience are pleasant in character. Hedonic level of affect is not the same as 'mood'. We experience different kinds of mood: elated mood, calm moods, restless moods, moody moods, etc. Each of these moods is characterized by a special mixture of affectional experiences, one of which is 'hedonic tone' or pleasantness'. The concept of hedonic level concerns only the pleasantness experienced in affects; the pleasantness in feelings, in emotions, as well as in moods. So a high hedonic level may be based on strong but passing emotions of love, as well as on moods of steady calmness.
A person's average hedonic level of affect can be assessed over different periods of time: an hour, a week, a year as well as over a lifetime. The focus here is on 'characteristic' hedonic level. That is to say, the average over a long timespan, such as a month or a year. The concept does not presume subjective awareness of that average level. Unlike the other two variants, it can therefore be applied to beings who cannot reflect on their own life, such as little children.

Contentment is the degree to which an individual perceives her/his aspirations to be met. The concept presupposes that the individual has developed some conscious wants and that s/he has formed an idea about their realization. The factual correctness of this idea is not at stake. The concept concerns the individual's subjective perception.
When we assess the degree to which our wants are being met, we may look both backwards and forewards. We may assess what life has brought up to now and we may estimate what it is likely to yield in the future. The concept concerns the case where both the past and the future are combined in the assessment.

2.3 Adjacent concepts not covered

Happiness as defined here is not the same as what is commonly understood as mental health, adjustment or succesful living. The core of these concepts is performance on some 'objective' standard of appropriateness, rather than the 'subjective' enjoyment of life. For the same reason happiness is not quite the opposite of depression. Though depressed people are generally unhappy, the unhappy are not necessarily depressive. The concept of depression presumes some mental defect. The concept of unhappiness does not.
Happiness is also different from aspect evaluation of life. The appreciation of life in specific domains such as 'job' or 'marriage' is not the same as the enjoyment of 'life-as-a-whole'. One can have a perfect job and a good marriage, but still be unhappy because one has a heart condition. Likewise, a positive evaluation of life on specific criteria such as 'social succes' or 'variation' does not necessarily coincide with a high 'overall' evaluation of life. There are numerous examples of entertainers, who have 'made it' in the exciting world of showbusiness, but who are nevertheless profoundly unhappy.

Publications on these adjacent matters are not included in this bibliography.

Further reading

This conceptualization of happiness was first proposed in Ruut Veenhoven in 'Conditions of Happiness', chapter 2 (Kluwer Academic, 1984, Dordrecht/Boston). The conceptualization is discussed in more detail in the introductory text to the collection of 'Happiness Measures' of the World Database of Happiness. See chapter 2 Concept of Happiness.