How to achieve well-being and happiness? Can these concepts be aims for individuals and nations as a whole? The question is still relevant despite the fact that concept of happiness has been debated for centuries.
Traditionally it was a job for philosophers to debate happiness. In the last decades academic disciplines such as anthropology, economy, psychology and sociology have demonstrated growing interest in happiness as an area of study. I will next explore some of the historical and more recently published concepts and ideas of happiness and well-being.
(a) Greek philosophers Plato, Aristotle and Seneca all talked about “eudaimonia” that consist themes such as good-life-spirit, since then happiness has remained a core topic in philosophy. More recent philosophers who have been influential figures and interested in happiness are Immanuel Kant, who was interested mainly in the temporary aspects of happiness and Soren Kierkegaard who felt that personal choices and commitment are the key elements of happiness.
(b) The British Enligthment era philosopher, Jeremy Bentham’s main argument was that the best society is the one where its citizens are happiest.
(c) A new branch of psychology known as “Positive Psychology” is interested in an individual’s subjective sense of well-being and happiness. One of the best known academic in this field is Ed Diener who has developed happiness measures to measure individual levels of happiness by simply asking people how they feel about their life. Another well published psychologist called Martin Seligman is seen as one of the pioneers who started to conceptualise the very recent idea of positive psychology in 1990’s.
(d) The British economist Richard Layard has been an influential figure in the debate about the connection between happiness and economy, especially in the United Kingdom (UK) For example, Layard has been recently working as one of the advisors for UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) in developing happiness measures for the United Kingdom.
(e) Anthropologist Neil Thin has argued that happiness and well-being are not seen as one single thing, but rather having multiple shapes and meanings depending on the context of culture, place and society.
(f) The concept of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) is the creation of King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji, who introduced the concept in 1960s. This concept was more ideological and was lacking detail and exact ideas of how to promote happiness and how to measure it. Despite these short comings, the idea of GNH has influenced the debate of happiness in the last decades.
(g) Inspired by the concept of GNH, Sociologist Ruut Veenhoven has developed many concepts of how to measure happiness in different contexts. One well established measurement of individual happiness by Veenhoven is known as the “Happy Life Years” measurement. This measurement combines an objective indicator (life expectancy) and a subjective indicator (life satisfaction) and calculates a Happy Life Years score from these dimensions.
(h) The New Economic Foundation (NEF) designed a globally comparable measure called (un) Happy Planet Index (HPI) (2009) which combines “Happy Life Years” and the amount of resources nations use in their pursuit of well-being and happiness. The HPI is trying to draw our attention to happiness over period of time in a wider environmental context of nations rather than individual ‘present’ experience only.
(i) The Stiglitz Commission (2009) report “Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress” has placed happiness and well-being at the core of many governmental polices across the industrialised countries since being published.
Now we know a little bit of the history of happiness and well-being. Next it will be helpful to know if it is well-being or happiness we want or a bit of both?