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Definition of Happiness

Happiness is the subjective appreciation of one’s life-as-a-whole, in other words: how much one likes the life one lives. Happiness in this sense is synonymous with ‘life satisfaction’ and is also referred to as ‘Subjective Well-being’. This definition is spelled out in more detail in the introductory text to the World database of Happiness

Research on subjective well-being has many overlappings with the happiness resaearch but includes more dimensions such as psoitive and negative emotions (including happiness), theglobal life satisfaction as well the satisfaction with specific dimensions of life. Happiness in this understanding is just one (affective) dimension of subjective well-being.[1]


Components of Happiness

When we assess how happy we are we use two sources of information 1) how well we feel most of the time and 2) to what degree we get what we want from life. These appraisals serve as subtotals in the overall evaluation of life and are seen as ‘components’ of happiness. How well we feel is called hedonic level of affect and referred to as the ‘affective’ component of happiness. Perception of getting what we want is called contentment and referred to as the ‘cognitive’ component of happiness. These variants of happiness are spelled out in more detail in the paper How do we assess how happy we are


Measurement of Happiness

Since happiness is something we have in mind, it can be measured using questioning. This can be done in various ways and for the purpose of estimating happiness in nations single survey questions can be used. A question used in the Gallup World Poll is: All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?
0 dissatisfied
10 satisfied

Not all the questions used for measuring happiness fit the above definition precisely. Acceptable questions are listed in the collection of Happiness Measures of the World Database of Happiness.

Comparability of happiness accross nations

There are doubts about the measurement of happiness and in particular about the comparability of self reported happiness across cultures. Empirical research has shown that there is little ground for these qualms. Happiness appears to be an universal notion and cultural measurement bias is limited

Difference in happiness across nations

The results of survey studies in samples of the general population in countries are gathered in the collection of Happiness in Nations Happiness in Nations of the World Database of Happiness. Responses to comparable questions are assembled in so-called Rank Reports, the latest of which covers 148 nations over the years 2000-2009 2000-2009. Analysis of these data shows greater happiness in the most modern countries of the present day world, that is, in countries that are economically most developed, politically most democratic and culturally most individualized.


See world maps measuring happiness in nations:

Level of happiness (mean)
Happy Life Years
Inequality of happiness (standard deviation)
Inequality-adjusted happiness (combination of mean and standard deviation)


Happiness and Progress

Happiness is a major indicator of progress of society. Happiness denotes how livable society is and points in particular to the apparent livability of society as opposed to its ‘assumed’ livability. A livable society is not necessarily an ideal society and apparent livability does not always fit common presumptions about conditions for a good life. These differences are explained in more detail in the paper ‘Apparent Quality of Life’. Likewise, happiness informs about the quality of human life in a nation, which is not quite the same as the wider quality of the nation. This difference is discussed in the paper ‘Well-being in nations and well-being of nations’ Survey data on happiness can be used in different ways for assessing progress in society. If the aim is simply greater happiness for a greater number of citizens, Average happiness (AH) is an appropriate measure. If the focus is on enduring happiness, it is better to combine average happiness with longevity in an index of Happy Life Years (HLY). If the aim is to reduce disparity among citizens a relevant indicator is the Inequality of Happiness (IH) in the nations as measured with the standard deviation. Average and dispersion can also be combined in an index of Inequality-Adjusted Happiness (IAH). These uses are explained in the paper ‘Measures of Gross National Happiness’

Does growth in material well being correlate with increases in happiness? One recent study is: The happiness–income paradox revisited. Richard A. Easterlin, Laura Angelescu McVey, Malgorzata Switek, Onnicha Sawangfa, and Jacqueline Smith Zweig. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/12/08/1015962107.  The story is also summarized with more detail here http://www.usc.edu/uscnews/newsroom/news_release.php?id=2311. This study concludes that over the long term, “happiness does not increase as a country’s income rises.”[2] There are a few important points to consider. One: the study was limited to 37 countries. There are, however, over 200 countries in the world, so it is hard to say whether the results of this study can represent all countries. It may be that the results do apply to all countries, but at present we cannot say. At present, the results only apply to the countries in the study. Two: their study looks at the relationship between income and happiness and finds no relationship over the long term. It may be that, however, increasing income is only one of several conditions that determine whether happiness of a country increases. Perhaps happiness will increase if income increases and other conditions improve as well, such as freedom, equality, and political stability and security. But if income is the only condition to improve, that may not be sufficient, by itself, to increase happiness. In the USC news release, professor Easterlin questions whether economic growth is the main route to greater happiness. It may be, then, that economic growth is one of a set of factors leading to increases in happiness. There are aalso recent papers that show the opposite, that economic growth does indeed bring increases in happiness. Two papers are Subjective Well-Being, Income, Economic Development and Growth. Development Challenges in a Post-Crisis World, Forthcoming. Justin Wolfers, Daniel W. Sacks and Betsey Stevenson, http://bpp.wharton.upenn.edu/jwolfers/research.shtml, and Subjective Well-Being, Income, Economic Development and Growth, Daniel Sacks, Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfer. Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Working Paper 2010-28. http://www.frbsf.org/publications/economics/papers/index.php.

Progress in Happiness

Happiness in the general population was assessed for the first time in 1946 in the USA. Since the 1970s happiness is also regularly measured in most developed nations. Time series of at least 15 years and involving at least 10 comparable data point are presented in collection of Happiness in Nations of The World Database of Happiness. The latest Trend Report covers 15 developed nations over the period 1946-2006. Happiness appears to have gone up in most of these countries. The scattered data about happiness in developing nations suggest considerable gains as well. These findings are discussed in more detail in the paper ‘Is life getting better?’

Scholarly works regarding happiness

UK Data Service Case Study – Investigating Macroeconomic Determinants of Happiness in Transition Countries: How Important is Government Expenditure?

See also


  1. Diener, E./Suh, E./Oishi, Sh. (1997), “Recent Findings on Subjective WellBeing”,Indian Journal of Clinical Psychology, available on June, 20, 2011 at: http://www.filozofija.lv/research/Ed_Diener_Recent_Findings_on_Subjective_Well-Being.doc
  2. The happiness–income paradox revisited. Richard A. Easterlin, Laura Angelescu McVey, Malgorzata Switek, Onnicha Sawangfa, and Jacqueline Smith Zweig. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online before print December 13, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1015962107 PNAS December 13, 2010, http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/12/08/1015962107

External links

The following collections in this database are of particular interest for the study of progress:
o Bibliography of Happiness [1], section ‘Happiness and Society’ (subject code F)
o Happiness in Nations [2]
o Correlational Findings [3] and in particular the subject sections N1 Nationality, N2 Era in nation, N3 national character, N4 Condition of the nation, N5 Position of the nation, N6 Attitudes to the nation and N7 Livability of the nation.
o States of Nations [4], data file for the cross national analysis of differences in happiness across nations
o Trends in Nations [5], data file for the analysis of temporal differences in happiness in nations.