Are You Happy?

One person’s brand of happiness can be entirely different from that of another.

Posted Dec 06, 2018

Over the past century, many researchers have attempted to determine an individual’s level of happiness first and foremost by asking what they believe is the most telling question:  “Are you happy?”  As Kathy Pollitt pointed out in The Nation in 2009, there are a host of problems when it comes to what she considered to be a “stupid” question. 

The first and biggest problem is, of course, how one defines the term, with “content,” “joyful,” “hopeful,” and “relieved” just a few perfectly valid but wildly different ways to describe happiness. When a person is asked and even who is asking are other methodological considerations going into answering the question, leading one to conclude that most studies of happiness should not be taken too seriously (or taken at all) because of the major challenges facing researchers in the field. Pollitt felt that at any given time she could have a dozen different answers to the question, “Are you happy?,” exposing the bad research practices that have been heavily relied upon in the field since the first studies were done in the 1920s.

Indeed, often left out of studies of and conversations about happiness is its most important characteristic: its subjective nature. One person’s brand of happiness can be entirely different than that of another person, a fact that is typically ignored by researchers and critics alike when they propose their weighty thoughts on the matter. 

The more fundamental problem with making conclusions about happiness is that people often do not tell the truth to researchers about any topic, especially one as sensitive as whether one is a happy person or not. Longitudinal comparisons of happiness are especially silly, as there are an infinite array of variables that go into the reporting and measurement of an individual’s emotion at any given time in any given place.  Beyond constantly shifting social, economic, political, scientific, technological, and cultural winds, the very concept of happiness can and does change over time, making any sweeping generalizations about the subject highly suspect.

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