But what do we mean by Happiness? Perhaps we should look in the World Database of Happiness? Believe it or not, this is real. Governments are increasingly wanting to measure the happiness of their citizens. The field of “Happiness Economics” focuses on creating such societal indicators of happiness. It also documents the things that seem to make citizens happy. The World Database of Happiness includes over 30,000 research findings. These were submitted by over 15,000 different researchers. ( Am I in the wrong discipline? I would love to be a Professor of Happiness).
There is a split within the field. Between those that measure hedonic rather than cognitive/evaluative happiness.
“In general , how happy or unhappy do you usually feel?”
Is a measure of how we feel or our hedonic happiness.
“How satisfied are you with life as a whole these days?”
This is very much more evaluative. The measures tend to get closer to wellbeing than happiness. It can be extended to cover a range of dimensions. These have included: meaning, purpose, autonomy, self-acceptance, optimism, positive relationships and mastery.
When we wish someone a "Happy Christmas" what are we actually wishing them? Surely it is not just a transitory feeling but some idea that over the rest of the year they might have “wellbeing”? That they will look back on 2023 and think that they have been satisfied with their life?
What makes us happy?
According to the researchers, there are four broad domains that can generate happiness or life satisfaction. These are: family; work; education and community. Family life and particularly marriage is associated with more life satisfaction. This comes from longitudinal studies not only cross sectional work. Divorce, by comparison, lowers life satisfaction long after the divorce. Marriage brings with it happy childhoods and long lasting life satisfaction. Divorce has the opposite effect.
Employment brings with it life satisfaction, family satisfaction and marital satisfaction. Re-employment of the unemployed results in improved life satisfaction. Employment has also been shown to influence mental and physical health. Education and work also influences our sense of purpose in life.
There is reasonable evidence that higher levels of education are associated with higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction. This may not be a direct relationship. Education is associated strongly with higher levels of health. Health has a major impact on life satisfaction.
Much of the “community” work has been done on religion. Regular attendance at services is associated with better health outcomes. People live longer and suffer less from depression. It also is associated with happiness and life satisfaction. Attendance at services increases the incidence of marriage and lessens divorces. There is an increased tendency to make new friends and to feel increased social support. Something that can come from other communities.
Life Satisfaction and Age.
A cross-sectional sample of US society looked at the impact of age on the level of life satisfaction. The 2500 respondents were broken down into age cohorts. The youngest were Gen Z (18-25) and the oldest the “Silent Generation” who were at the time over 77. Measures of "Happiness and Life Satisfaction" were taken. They showed a straight line relationship. The older cohorts were happier and had higher levels of life satisfaction.
It seems that socio-emotional selectivity theory works. As Carstensen suggested, as people get older their mortality becomes more real. They change their motivations. They focus much more on regulating their emotional environment. They seek out pleasant experiences and consciously avoid unpleasant ones. There are huge variations within cohorts. But in aggregate it appears to work. We should give more of our “Happy Christmas” wishes to the young. They need it.
Is Happiness Enough?
The World Health Organization defines health as:
“ a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being”.
It is a very broad definition that does not really fit with the way Society is organized. Medicine, public health, psychology and economics tend to restrict themselves. They have much narrower definitions of success. Medicine and public health will often focus on an individual disease. Psychology will often focus on relieving symptoms rather than underlying causes. Economics tends to focus on utility as measured in financial terms.
To overcome this, measures of “human flourishing” are being developed. These broaden “Happiness and Life Satisfaction”. They add in “Physical and Mental Health” including avoidance of depression. They add in that senses of “Meaning and Purpose”, that can come from work , religion or the family. “Close Personal Relationships” are defined as part of flourishing. Finally they include a more philosophical idea of “Character and Virtue”. Flourishing embodies living a “good” life.
The same four domains can influence these five components of “flourishing”. Family can influence physical and mental health. The family can impact meaning and purpose, character and virtue and obviously close social relationships. So can work, education and religion/community. Scores on each dimension of Flourishing increase with age. The Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers rate all the dimensions higher than Gen Z.
Initiatives to improve healthy longevity have been launched all over the world. Many of the components of flourishing are included in those initiatives. Often they are part of the action steps necessary to produce good health for the length of our extending lives. The Happiness Economists at least would argue that they are all part of health.
I am not sure how to fit my Christmas wish to you all on to a single card:
May you enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of the Season
May you look back on 2023 believing that you have been happy and satisfied with your life
That you have been healthy, physically and mentally
You have had a sense of meaning and purpose
That you can be proud to have lived a “good” year
That you have grown and nourished close social relationships.
AND A FLOURISHING NEW YEAR