What Do We Mean by "Happiness"? the Relevance of Subjective Wellbeing to Social Policy

Article excerpt


Recent research in economics, sociology and psychology has re-ignited interest in human happiness, and this interest has extended into social policy research and analysis. Happiness research has challenged some of the axioms of standard economic theories of utility and welfare, but the assumptions underlying this research remain utilitarian. Further, there are significant semantic problems for happiness surveys concerning the contemporary uses of the words happiness and happy. While happiness research has stimulated some self-critical reflection about social and economic policy priorities, it has yet to provide any convincing basis for the setting of policy goals or the evaluation of outcomes.


The Ministry of Social Development describes the term "social wellbeing" as "comprising individual happiness, quality of life, and the aspects of community, environmental, and economic functioning that are important to a person's welfare" (2004:24). The purpose of this paper is to examine the cross-cultural, ethical and political uses of happiness. This leads on to consideration of growing international research on this topic. Happiness research encompasses the fields of psychology, sociology and economics, and authors on this topic have advanced various prescriptions for public policy. An indication of local interest in the policy relevance of happiness is revealed by the Ministry's Social Wellbeing Survey 2004 (Smith 2004). This survey included questions on happiness and satisfaction with life. What, then, are the likely uses of such a survey, what considerations might there be when interpreting its results, and what are the difficulties in our understanding of the construct of happiness? What kind of evidence base can happiness research provide for social policy development?

First, it is worth acknowledging that the ethical issue of how individuals may live a better or happier life has been discussed and explicitly linked to questions of politics and good government at least since Aristotle's time. The term happiness, furthermore, occupies a central place in modern political thought, appearing as a key term in various seminal texts of liberal and utilitarian political economy. For example, in Paine's Rights of Man [1790], "the general happiness" (the happiness of all, not just the ruling class) is the main objective of any just government (1996:164). The link between happiness and economic production was made by T.R. Malthus in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1993 [1798]). He deems "happy" those periods in a nation's history where there is sufficient arable land for the expansion of agriculture and, above all, the rapid increase of the population.

The "principle of utility" set forth in Jeremy Bentham's introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation [1789] is still influential. He states that:

   A measure of government ... may be said to be conformable to or
   dictated by the principle of utility, when ... the tendency which
   it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than
   any which it has to diminish it (Bentham, in Warnock 1962:33).

Individual happiness is determined by a "hedonic calculus" of pleasure and pain; and collective, "popular" happiness is the aggregate sum of the happiness of its individual members. Individual welfare or happiness is a matter of subjective preference, and thus depends on the freedom to choose whichever path gives greater pleasure. It is thus not up to any government to decide for us what specifically is in the best interests of our happiness as individuals, but its actions must be guided by a calculation of what will maximise the aggregate "happiness of the community". (2)

The implied subjectivism of Bentham's principle of utility was challenged by twentieth-century economic and psychological theories. American behaviourism rejected introspective research methods and any concepts reliant on subjective judgements. …