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 the high rankings seen for happiness in survey studies about value priorities.
The aim of creating greater happiness for a greater number requires an understanding of happiness. It demands that we can grasp the main determinants of happiness, that is, not only what makes people happy, but also the reason why these things add to happiness. We also need tohave a view on the consequences of happiness, to allow us detect possible self-destructive effects of happinessand to appraise synergies with other values.
Efforts to understand human happiness have absorbed a lot of thought over the millennia. Happiness was a major issue in early Greek philosophy and continued to be in several later philosophical schools. Currently the subject is receiving a lot of attention in the social sciences, in particular in Social Indicators Research. Even more recently, happiness has become a topic in economics.
Empirical study of happiness
Philosophical reflection on happiness has produced a lot of ideas, but little operational knowledge. In fact, it has raised more questions than answers. Many theoretical controversies can not be solved using the logic of reasoning alone.
The advent of empirical research by social scientists in the first half of the 20th century brought a breakthrough. New methods of quantitative research opened the possibility to test theories of happiness and to identify conditions for happiness inductively. In the last decades some 6000 empirical studies have been performed on happiness defined as the subjective enjoyment of one’s life-as-a-whole. In the beginning happiness was typically as a side-issue in studies on health and ageing, but currently also as a main subject.
To date (2020) 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 our understanding of the processes and conditions involved in the 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 us the expected break-through in the understanding of happiness. In addition to complexities in the subject matter, there are several practical problems, which are discussed below.
The first and most simple reason for lack of progress is lack of coordination. Part of the research effort has been highly redundant; the same issues are investigated in the same way repeatedly. As a result, the range of variables considered is still limited and methodological progress is slow. A related problem is that the research findings are scattered. Most observations are bibliographically irretrievable. Consequently, many of the findings get lost.
The second reason is the confusion of tongues that exists around how happiness is defined. Words like ‘happiness’ and ‘life-satisfaction’ are used to denote different phenomena in the literature. Currently most investigators define happiness as subjective appreciation of life-as-a-whole. Some authors, however,also include objective notions of mental health and appropriate behavior, sometimes referred to as ‘eudaimonic’ happiness. Consequently, the indicators of happiness used in empirical research tend to be different and thus often incomparable. Getting an overview of the research findings requires first of all a grouping of studies that are agreed to measure the same matter.
A more basic reason for the lack of progress is in the dominant research approach presently used. The bulk of empirical happiness studies consists of cross-sectional studies, done 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 strong indications that a positive appreciation of life facilitates social functioning. Separation of cause and effect requires panel studies or better, (natural) experiments. Such studies are scarce as yet, and the data that is available is again scattered.
Secondly, conditions for happiness are probably not the same in all times and at all places. Neither are its consequences. Although there are obviously several universal requirements for a happy life, such as food and possibly meaning, most effects seem to be contingent on the 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 cannot be detected in single studies in one country, however, they can be identified if many studies are compared in a systematic meta-analysis.
Lastly, current correlational studies in one nation cannot grasp macro-social conditions for happiness. The focus is on differences in happiness within nations, and such studies are blind to variation in happiness between nations. Therefore, happiness research has as yet little relevance for major political discussions such as on how much priority should be given to promoting continuous economic growth or human rights protection. Investigation of such matters requires cross-national studies, preferably in a semi-longitudinal design. As yet such studies are scarce, but we can do a lot by comparing the available one-nation studies.
The World Database of Happiness is designed to overcome these problems.
Focus on subjective enjoyment of life as a whole
The World Database of Happiness limits to a strickt defined concept of happiness: that is, happiness defined as ” the subjective enjoyment of a person’s life as a whole”. For a detailed delineation of the concept look in Chapter 2 of the Introductory text to the Bibliography of Happiness: Concept of Happiness.
Based on scientific publications about happiness in the above sense
The WDH’s Bibliography of Happiness provides a fairly complete inventory of scientific publications on happiness as defined above. This may help users to get an overview of the field and to trace literature on specific issues. We hope this will reduce data redundancies. The related Directory of Investigators lists scientists who have published on happiness and is meant to facilitate communication in the field.
Restriction to findings obtained with a valid measure of happiness
Measures of happiness used in empirical studies are screened for fit with the above definition of happiness. This procedure is described in chapter 4 of the Introductory text to the Collection Measures of Happiness: Accepted Measures
Standardized description of research findings
Research findings obtained with an accepted measure of happiness are described on electronic ‘finding pages’, using a standard format and terminology. See chapter 3 of the Introductory text to the Collection of Correlational Findings: Notation of findings. These pages are then stored in the collection of Distributional Findings and/or Correlational Findings, were they can be searched on subject, people investigated and methodological characteristics.
An application of this approach on research findings gathered up to 2018 is found in the article Informed Pursuit of Happiness. Further applications are listed on the page Uses of this database.
World Database of Happiness: A finding archive
The World Database of Happiness received the 2021 ISQOLS Award for the Betterment of the Human Condition. Since this award is given to independent organizations (which the WDH is not) it was delivered to the supporting Foundation for the study of Happiness.