Understanding Happiness

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I’m Bob Doughty. And I’m Faith Lapidus with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. For thousands of years, people have been debating the meaning of happiness and how to find it.

From the ancient Greeks and Romans to current day writers and professors, the debate about happiness continues. What makes someone happy? In what parts of the world are people the happiest? Why even study happiness? Today, we explore these questions and learn about several new books on happiness studies.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that a person’s highest happiness comes from the use of his or her intelligence. Religious books such as the Koran and Bible discuss faith as a form of happiness. The British scientist Charles Darwin believed that all species were formed in a way so as to enjoy happiness. And, the United States Declaration of Independence guarantees “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as a basic human right.  People throughout history may have had different ideas about happiness. But today, many people are still searching for its meaning.

But how do you study something like happiness? You could start with the World Database of Happiness at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. This set of information includes how to define and measure happiness. It also includes happiness averages in countries around the world and compares that information through time.

Some findings are not surprising. For example, the database suggests that married people are happier than single people. People who like to be with other people are happier than unsocial people. And people who have sex a lot are happier than people who do not.  But other findings are less expected: People with children are equally happy as couples without children. And wealthier people are only a little happier than poorer people.  The database suggests that people who live in strongly democratic and wealthy countries are happier than those who do not.

This database also shows that studying happiness no longer involves just theories and ideas. Economists, psychiatrists, doctors and social scientists are finding ways of understanding happiness by examining real sets of information.

Positive psychology is the new term for a method of scientific study that tries to examine the things that make life worth living instead of life’s problems. Traditional psychology generally studies negative situations like mental suffering and sickness. But positive psychology aims to study the strengths that allow people and communities to do well. Martin Seligman is the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He says positive psychology has three main concerns: positive emotions, positive individual qualities and positive organizations and communities.

There is also an increasing amount of medical research on the physical qualities of happiness. Doctors can now look at happiness at work in a person’s brain using a method called magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. For example, an MRI can show how one area of a person’s brain activates when he or she is shown happy pictures. A different area of the brain becomes active when the person sees pictures of terrible subjects.

Doctors are studying brain activity to better understand the physical activity behind human emotions. This research may lead to better understanding of depression and other mental problems.

Happiness is an extremely popular subject for books.  If you search for "happiness" on the Web site of the online bookseller,, you will find more than two hundred thousand results. Experts from several areas of study recently published books on the subject.

The historian Darrin McMahon examines the development of happiness in “Happiness: A History.” Mr. McMahon looks at two thousand years of politics and culture in western countries. He says it is only in recent history that people think of happiness as a natural human right.

Darrin McMahon explains how the ancient Greeks thought happiness was linked to luck. He says it was not until the Enlightenment period in eighteenth century Europe that people began to think they had the power to find happiness themselves. He notes that in demanding happiness, people may think something is wrong with them or others if they are not happy. Mr. McMahon sees the pressure to be happy as actually creating unhappiness.

Darrin McMahon says his book will not make readers happier. But he says that by comparing your situation with people throughout history, you can have a better understanding of the idea of happiness.

The journalist Eric Weiner recently wrote a book called “The Geography of Bliss."  Mr. Weiner traveled to countries such as Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar and Thailand to investigate happiness in different parts of the world. He met with experts and talked with local people to try to understand what makes people in different societies happy.

For example, Eric Weiner learned that in Bhutan, the government measures “Gross Domestic Happiness” as a way to tell whether its citizens are happy. Mr. Weiner also traveled to Moldova, a country he says is one of the least happy countries in the world. And he traveled to Iceland because studies show that it is one of the happiest nations in the world.

Mr. Weiner at first could not understand why a country with so little sunlight in the winter and so many alcohol drinkers could be so happy. But, he decided that happiness in Iceland is linked to its close community, striking natural beauty and high levels of creativity. Denmark, another cold country, also has been listed as one of the happiest countries.  Mr. Weiner says the United States is the twenty-third happiest country in the world.

Dan Gilbert teaches psychology at Harvard University in Massachusetts.  He recently published “Stumbling on Happiness.” Mr. Gilbert looks at the way the human mind is different from other animals because we can think about the future and use our imaginations.  He also explains how our minds can trick us in a way that creates difficulties in making happy choices for the future.

For example, a person might think that buying a new car would make him or her happy even though the last car the person bought did not. So, events that we believe will bring us happiness bring us less than we think. And, events we fear will make us unhappy make us less unhappy than we believe. The book provides valuable information on the surprising ways in which our minds work. Here is a recording of Mr. Gilbert talking about this “impact bias.” It was taken from the Big Think Web site.


"Most of the time when people are wrong about how they’ll feel about the future, they’re wrong in the direction of thinking that things will matter to them more than they really do. We are remarkable at our ability to adjust and adapt to almost any situation; but we seem not to know this about ourselves. And so we mistakenly predict that good things will make us happy . . . really happy for a really long time . Bad things, why they’ll just slay us. It turns out neither of these things is by and large true."

Why is studying happiness important? There are many answers to this question. One has to do with understanding happiness in order to create better public policies. Richard Layard is a British economist and lawmaker who studies this subject. His research is influenced by the eighteenth century thinker Jeremy Bentham. Mr. Bentham believed that the goal of public policy was to create the “greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

Richard Layard has looked at the relation between happiness and a country’s wealth. He questions why people in western countries are no happier than they were fifty years ago although they now earn more money.

Mr. Layard believes that part of the problem is that economics and public policy tend to measure a country’s success by the amount of money it makes. He notes that happiness depends on more than the purchasing power of a person or a nation.

Mr. Layard says that public policy should also help people improve the things that lead to happiness such as job security and health.  To help improve public health policies in Britain, Mr. Layard has pressed the British government to spend more money on mental health treatment centers. He argues that by helping people recover from mental illness, the government can make a big step in the effort to increase happiness.

Many people have also written songs about happiness. We leave you with this song by the Pointer Sisters about the happiness of being in love.

This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Bob Doughty.

And I’m Faith Lapidus. You can read and listen to our programs on our Web site, Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.