Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

What Does It Mean to Be Happy?

The word “happy” has many meanings. Why does that matter?

Happiness is almost a national obsession these days.  The self-help shelves of bookstores are filled with entries that promise to help you find or achieve happiness.  The field of positive psychology has highlighted the importance of subjective well-being, which is the general sense people have of their good feelings and life satisfaction.  Businesses are focused on the idea that happy employees are productive employees and that the goal of most businesses is to surprise and delight consumers.

In this context, we rarely think about what the word happy really means.  If you are a native speaker of English, then you probably assume that you know what it means to be happy.  You probably also assume that people around the world share a similar idea of what it means to be happy (though they may differ in what makes them happy).  Finally, you probably believe that the general concept of happiness has been similar for humans for eons (though, again, the particular things that might have made people happy a few thousand years ago are not the same as the things that make people happy now).

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A fascinating paper by Shigehiro Oishi, Jesse Graham, Selin Kesebir, and Iolanda Costa Galinha in the May, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explores what it means to be happy both across cultures/languages and over time within the United States. 

This work demonstrates that there are big differences across cultures in what the term happiness means.  There has also been a drift in the meaning of happiness for Americans over the past 200 years.

To explore the meaning of the term happy, the researchers collected the term (or sometimes terms) for happiness that are used in 30 different countries.  Many of these countries represented different languages (French in France, Chinese in China), but there were several countries in which there was a common language (English is spoken in both Australia and the United States; Spanish is spoken in Argentina, Ecuador, and Spain).  They got these terms from informants who provided the best word (or words) used to describe the concept of happiness.  The researchers also provided their sense of the most authoritative dictionary in that country.

Research assistants than explored aspects of the meaning of the words for happiness across languages. 

A striking observation is that in 24 of the 30 countries, there was a strong element of luck associated with the meaning of the term happiness.  In English used in the United States, there is minor use of the term to mean luck (“That was a happy accident.”), but generally happiness in the US refers to an individual emotional state.  Other countries also had a component of the meaning of happiness that referred to the positive emotional state. 

Another interesting observation from this analysis was that the further countries are from the equator, the more that the luck aspect of happiness emerges.  The authors speculate that in colder climates, the environmental conditions play a bigger role in success and well-being than in milder climates.

Two other analyses examined changes in the use of the term happy in English over the past few hundred years.  One analyses demonstrated that the use of the words happy and happiness in State of the Union addresses by US presidents has declined over the years.  In addition, there has been a shift.  In the 1800s, when Presidents talked about happiness, they were referring to luck and prosperity.  By the mid-to-late 1900s, though when Presidents talked about happiness, they were referring to the positive emotion of satisfaction.

A second analysis looked at how often books in the United States talked about a happy nation versus a happy person.  That is, if happiness is a circumstance associated with luck and prosperity, then we should talk about it in reference to groups like the country.  If happiness is an internal emotional state, then we should talk about it related mostly to people.

To explore this question, the researchers searched for the phrases happy nation and happy person in the books in English books published in the United States in the Google digital database between 1800 and 2008. 

In 1800, people were much more likely to talk about a happy nation than a happy person.  The number of references to a happy nation decreased steadily throughout the 1800s, and by 1900, it was relatively rare.  Starting in about 1925, there was an uptick in the use of the term happy person.

There are two interesting aspects to these data analyses.  First, there has been a shift in the US from a focus on happiness as a state that is caused from the outside through luck and prosperity to an internal emotional state that is under the control of the person.  Second, the view that happiness involves strong elements of external forces like luck is still common around the world, even if it is not common in the United States.

This issue is important, because much of the scientific world uses English as the basis for describing key psychological states and processes.  If English is a little quirky in the way that it uses one of these terms, that can have a profound influence on what science believes it should be studying.

Finally, even if you are not a scientist, it is important to realize that there are many components to happiness.  If you are feeling sad, then you may be prone to focus on what is wrong with you that makes you unhappy.  When you realize the role that life situations play in happiness, though, it helps you to see how changing your environment can also change your outlook on life.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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