QUESTIONS ON HAPPINESSClassical topics, modern answers, blind spotsRuut Veenhoven ¹in : F. Strack, M Argyle, & N. Schwarz (eds) 'Subjective wellbeing, an interdisciplinaryperspective', Pergamon Press, 1991, London, pp 7-261.INTRODUCTIONHappiness is a longstanding theme in Western thought. It came under scrutiny in thefollowing three periods: (1) Antique Greek philosophy; (2) Post-Enlightenment WestEuropean moral philosophy, Utilitarianism in particular; and (3) Current Quality-of-Liferesearch in the rich welfare states. Printed reflections on all this contemplation now fill ahundred meters of bookshelves.This paper takes stock of the progress made on seven classical topics. Are we now anywiser? Or is Dodge (1930) right in his contention that “the theory of the happy life hasremained on about the same level that the ancient Greeks left it”? This inventory will differfrom the usual review articles. The focus will not be on current technical research issues, butrather on the broader questions that prompted the enquiry. Furthermore, the aim is not onlyto enumerate advances in understanding, but also to mark the blind spots.The following issues will be considered:1. What is happiness?2. Can happiness be measured?3. Is unhappiness the rule?4. How do people assess their happiness?5. What conditions favour happiness?6. Can happiness be promoted?7. Should happiness be promoted?These scientific issues do not emerge in a social vacuum, but are rooted in broader moraland political debates. Questions 1 and 7 are part of an ongoing ethical discussion aboutvalue priorities. Which values should guide us? How should we rank values such as“wisdom”, “equality”, “justice”, “freedom” and “happiness”? Together with question 5,these issues also figure in the related political debates about socio-economic priorities.Should the emphasis be on national economic growth or on individual wellbeing? Who arethe deprived in our society? How can their suffering best be reduced?Questions 2 to 6 further link up with the discussion about the possibilities and dangers ofsocio-political technocracy. Will our understanding of human and social functioning everCorrespondence to: Prof. Dr. Ruut Veenhoven Erasmus University Rotterdam, Faculty of Social Sciences,P.O.B. 1738 3000 DR Rotterdam, Netherlands.www.eur.nl/fsw/research/veenhoven
Ruut Veenhoven2Questions on happinessallow the deduction of optimal policies? Will the political system ever be able to put suchpolicies into practice? If so, will not the remedy be worse than the disease, and bring about a“Brave New World”? Questions 3 to 6 relate to the broad argument between pessimists andoptimists. They are all issues in the discussion as to whether current society is rotten or not,and whether social development holds any promise for a better one. Questions 4 and 5 arerelevant in the debate on human nature. Is happiness the result of rational consideration or offollowing blind instincts? Has human happiness anything to do with the real good or can webe happy in any condition? Finally, question 3 is an issue in the ongoing discussion aboutthe legitimacy of the political order. If most people feel happy under the current regime, whychange it? For that reason, conservatives tend to claim that we are happy, whilerevolutionaries try to prove we are not.2.WHAT IS HAPPINESS?The history of happiness research is the history of confusion. The term has carried manydifferent meanings and this has hindered productive thinking enormously. Nowadays,the discussion has largely escaped from this deadlock. In fact, the greatest advance achievedis at the conceptual level.Part of the problem is not specific to the subject matter but results from the varietyof meanings the term happiness has in common language. Because of the lack of conceptualdiscipline, that confusion of tongues has been continued into the scientific debate. Anadditional problem is that the seemingly technical discussion about the proper use of wordsin fact covers up an ideological debate about value priorities. In many arguments the term“happiness” is used as a synonym for “the good”. “Defining” happiness is then propagatingan ideology. Therefore, a consensus on the use of the word has never emerged.Recent conceptual differentiationIn the 1950s the use of concepts such as “welfare”, “adjustment” and “mental health” hadmuch in common with the traditional confusion about “happiness”. Yet in the last fewdecades social scientists have largely escaped from these deadlocks and have therebyallowed a breakthrough in the conceptualization of happiness. It is now generally agreed thatthere are many varieties of goodness, which do not necessarily concur. A classification ofcurrent concepts is presented by Scheme 2.1.The reader should bear in mind that the enumeration is illustrative rather than exhaustive.Furthermore, most of the terms mentioned are used with other meanings as well and couldtherefore be classified differently. Elsewhere I have elaborated this classification in moredetail (Veenhoven, 1980).Focus on life satisfactionThis paper will focus on happiness in the sense of life satisfaction. We cannot answer theseven questions for all concepts. Therefore, a choice is required. I choose the overall selfappraisal of life for four reasons: (1) This concept can be fairly precisely defined (seebelow); (2) the phenomenon thus defined can be measured fairly well (to be demonstrated inthe next paragraph); (3) there are empirical data on this matter which allow answers to thequestions raised; (4) focusing on an “objective” conception of happiness would involve apriori answers to several of the questions under discussion.
Ruut Veenhoven3Questions on happinessLife satisfaction is conceived as the degree to which an individual judges the overall qualityof his life-as-a-whole favourably. In other words: how well he likes the life he leads. Theterm “happiness” will be used as a synonym.Next to this “overall” evaluation, this paper will refer to two aspect appraisals of life-as-awhole an affective aspect (hedonic level) and a cognitive aspect (contentment). Hedoniclevel is the degree to which the various affects a person experiences are pleasant; in otherwords: how well he usually feels. Contentment is the degree to which an individualperceives his aspirations to have been met. In other words: to what extent one perceivesoneself to have got what one wants in life. These distinctions will prove fruitful inanswering the questions asked here. The concepts are described in more detail inVeenhoven, 1984a, chapter 2.3.CAN HAPPINESS BE MEASURED?During the last century frequent discussions have taken place as to whether happiness can bemeasured. These debates were part of the discussion about the utilitarian moral philosophy,which required some kind of hedonic bookkeeping in order to assess the happiness revenuesof alternative courses of action. A great deal of that discussion is not relevant for this paper,because it concerns conceptions other than life-satisfaction.When happiness polls began to be used during the last few decades, the discussion focusedon whether subjective appreciation of life can be assessed validly. The following issuesfigured in that discussion: (1) Can happiness be measured “objectively” or only“subjectively” by questioning? (2) If questioning is the only way, do interviews tap anexisting state of mind or do they merely invite a guess? (3) If people do indeed have an ideaabout their enjoyment of life, do their responses to questions reflect that idea adequately?These questions have instigated a great deal of empirical research and can now be fairly wellanswered.3.1Assessment by observation“Measurement” was long understood as “objective”, “external” assessment, analogous to themeasurement of blood-pressure by a doctor. It is now clear that life satisfaction cannot bemeasured that way. Steady physiological concomitants have not been discovered andmodern insights into the complexity of psycho-physiological interactions do not suggest thatthey ever will be. Neither have any overt behaviours been found to be linked reliably toinner enjoyment of life. Like all attitudes, happiness is reflected only partly in socialbehaviour. Though an “active”, “outgoing” and “friendly” appearance is more frequentamong the happy, it is observed among unhappy persons as well. Even unconscious bodylanguage has been found to be only weakly related to the inner appreciation of life (Noelle-Neumann, 1977, p. 244). Consequently, ratings of someone’s happiness by his peers orteachers are only weakly related to self-reports (research reviewed in Veenhoven, 1984a, pp.83—84). The case of suicide was long considered to be an exception. This kind of behaviourwas thought to indicate extreme unhappiness. However, the abundant research in that fieldhas made it clear that dissatisfaction with life is at best one of the motives and that there is agreat cultural and personal variation in one’s capacity to cope with unhappiness, other thanby committing suicide.
Ruut Veenhoven3.24.4Questions on happinessAssessment by questioningInference from overt behaviour being impossible, we must make do with questioning: eitherdirect or indirect and in a personal interview or by an anonymous questionnaire. Greatdoubts have been expressed about the validity of such self-reports of happiness. However,empirical checks of these suspicions have not revealed great distortions (see Chapter 3 for adifferent perspective)One of the doubts raised is that most people would have no opinion at all about their lifesatisfaction. Answers to questions on that subject would reflect other things: in particularprevailing norms of self-presentation. However, people appear to be quite aware of theirenjoyment of life. Eight out of ten Americans think of it once a week or more often (Shaverand Freedman, 1975, p. 70). Consequently, responses on happiness items tend to be prompt,the non-response is low and temporal stability high. Stereotypical responses are not the rule(evidence reviewed in Veenhoven, 1984, pp. 40 - 42).It is often claimed that people present themselves happier than - deep in their heart - theyknow they are. Both ego-defensive and social desirability effects would be involved. Thisdistortion should give itself away in the often observed overrepresentation of “very happy”people, in the fact that most people perceived themselves happier than average and in thefinding that psychosomatic complaints are not uncommon among persons who characterizethemselves as being happy. Yet these facts provide no proof. As we will see in the nextparagraph, it is quite comprehensible that a positive appreciation of life prevails. There arealso reasons why most people could honestly imagine themselves happier than average, andreasons why the presence of psychosomatic complaints does not exclude a positive appreciation of life. The proof of the pudding is a demonstration of distortion itself. Several clinicalstudies have tried to do so, but failed to find evidence for a general overstatement ofhappiness (research reviewed in Veenhoven, 1984a, pp. 44-51).Although there is no proof of systematic desirability distortion, there is evidence thatresponses to questions on happiness are liable to various situational influences, such as thesite of the interview, the interviewer, the weather, one’s mood, etc. (see Chapter 3). Thesedifferences can be considered as essentially random error, because they tend to disappear inrepeated observations of the usual one-time-one-item measurement. More systematicmeasurement error is involved as well. Responses are influenced by the precise wording ofquestions, answer formats, sequence of questions and context of the interview (see Strackand Martin, 1987).Andrews and Whithey (1976, p. 216) estimated that error produces about half the variancein happiness reports. Several reasons for this vulnerability seem to be involved. Firstly,some people may not have a definite opinion in mind and engage in an instant(re)assessment which is then influenced by situational characteristics (see Chapter 3).Secondly, those who do have a definite opinion will mostly hold a rather global idea of howhappy they are and will not think in terms of a ten points scale. Hence, their precise scoremay vary. Thirdly, the process of retrieval involves some uncertainty as well.IS UNHAPPINESS THE RULE?Social critics of all times have bemoaned the miseries of life. Most people are believed to bebasically dissatisfied and real enjoyment of life is to be projected in past paradise or futureutopia. Such claims have always been denounced by optimists but the discussion has always
Ruut Veenhoven5Questions on happinessbeen inconclusive. During the last few decades many surveys have been carried out (seeChapter 13), some drawing on world samples: so is it now finally possible to draw aconclusion?The first representative surveys were carried out in Western countries and showed an unevendistribution of happy and unhappy citizens: the happy outweighing the unhappy by about 3to 1. This finding raised much doubt about the validity of survey questions (discussedearlier). Later cross-national studies have reproduced this pattern in less affluent nonWestern countries as well, but not in the Third World nations where a large proportion of thepopulation lives at subsistence levels (see Scheme 2.2 (Veenhoven 1984a)). This latterfinding took away many of the validity doubts: a universal tendency to claim happiness inthe face of misery is not involved.Various social critics have discounted such findings as sullen adjustment. Rather than reallyenjoying their life, people would just give up hope for a better one and try to make the bestof it (e.g. Ipsen, 1978, p.49). Various defensive strategies would be used for that purpose:simple denial of one’s misery; downward comparison (Wills, 1981) and a tendency to seethings rosier than they are (Ostroot and Snyder, 1982). This view is supported inexperiments suggesting “depressive realism” (Alloy and Abramson, 1979). Two counterarguments can be mentioned:(1) Such resignation must give itself away in a discrepancy between the “constructed”judgment of life and “raw” affective experience: in my terms between “overall happiness”and “hedonic level”. Hedonic level is less vulnerable to cognitive adaptation, because it is adirect experience and is less open to defensive distortion, because it is less threatening toadmit that one feels bad sometimes than to admit to being disappointed in life. Varioussurveys in Western nations have assessed both overall happiness and hedonic level andfound these highly correlated (research reviewed in Veenhoven, 1984a pp. 106 - 113).¹Studies focusing on daily variations in mood have also found that pleasant affect dominatesunpleasant affect (e.g., Bless and Schwarz, 1984 for a meta-analysis of eighteen studies).(2) Elaborate comparisons between actual living conditions and subjective appreciation oflife have shown that the pattern of high life satisfaction in the face of relatively bad livingconditions is the exception rather than the rule (Glatzer and Zapf, 1984, pp. 282—397).Together these findings suggest that people tend to enjoy their lives once conditions are nottoo bad. From an adaptive biological point of view this does not seem strange. Nature isunlikely to have burdened us with characteristic unhappiness, because evolution is unlikelyto result in a species that does not fit its characteristic environment subjectively. Like“health”, happiness would seem to be a normal condition.One argument for this latter theory is that happiness has a certain survival value. As we willsee in more detail later, enjoyment of life fosters “activity”, strengthens “social bonds” andpreserves “health”.There is a little evidence for a biological substrate of this capacity for happiness. In thehuman brain more areas seem to produce positive experiences than negative ones (25 percent to 5 per cent, according to Fordyce, 1975, p. 191).The prevalence of satisfaction with life-as-a-whole does not wash away the multitude ofsuffering and complaints. As noted in the foregoing paragraphs, even the happy are notwithout complaints. The German Welfare Survey, conducted in 1978, found that half of the“highly satisfied” report frequent worries (Glatzer and Zapf, 1984, p. 180).
Ruut Veenhoven6Questions on happinessIf not due to response distortion, what else can explain these anomalies? One first thing tonote is that happiness and complaining do not exclude each other logically. One can befairly satisfied with life as a whole, but still be aware of serious deficits. In fact, both stemfrom a reflection on life. Secondly, bad feelings and perception of problems may to someextent contribute to overall happiness. Only through realistic acknowledgement of pains canpeople cope effectively with the problems of life and thereby maintain a positive overallbalance.5.HOW DO PEOPLE ASSESS THEIR HAPPINESS?What goes on in people when they evaluate their life? This inner manufacturing ofhappiness is a subject full of controversies: whether happiness is the product of “thinking”or of “emotion”; whether it is a “state” or a “trait”; whether it results entirely from“comparison” or results from the gratification of “needs”, etc. The issue was a major themein antique philosophy about happiness and enjoys a renewed interest nowadays. It is not justcuriosity about the inside of the black box that draws one’s attention, but rather the farreaching consequences of the different points of view. If happiness were indeed to resultentirely from comparison, it is likely to be essentially relative and hence insensitive toameliorations of the (objective) quality of life. A better society will not make happierpeople. If happiness is a fixed “disposition”, efforts to improve living conditions will notcontribute to greater enjoyment either. However, if happiness draws on “need satisfaction”,there is a point in trying to identify basic human urges and to facilitate their fulfillment. Ifpersonal cognitive “constructs” are involved, we might sometimes relieve suffering bychanges in thinking.The discussion has yielded many facts and a lot of theories, which are difficult to oversee. Asimple partition may help to sketch the field. Most questions and speculations about theinner fabrication of happiness concern mental processes. Yet it is widely acknowledged thata physical substrate is involved as well. Likewise, most of the discussion focuses on theprocesses that produce variable states, while there is no doubt that processes of stabilizationinto traits are involved as well. Together these two distinctions produce the four cell schemein Scheme 2.3. It allows an ordering of issues, provides a view on current emphasis and mayto some extent correspond with the realities involved.Traditionally, the processes in cell 1 of the scheme have received the most attention, inparticular the cognitive processes of comparison and making overall judgments. The growthof cognitive psychology in the last few decades has triggered a great deal of new ideas onthese matters. Theories on (social) comparison have been refined and new perspectives havebeen opened on how people may put things together. Elsewhere I have reviewed currentviews (Veenhoven, 1989). The mental mechanisms that underlie the emergence of (raw)pleasant affect are still largely a mystery.Less progress has been made in answering the questions in cell 2. The classical trait-statediscussion still drags on: nowadays mostly presented as the bottom-up/top-downcontroversy. At the empirical level remarkable demonstrations have been provided for bothviews, yet understanding has advanced little, attention being focused too much on either/oranswers.
Ruut Veenhoven7Questions on happinessConsideration of the conditions in which appraisals of life “freeze” and “unfreeze” wouldseem to be more productive. It