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The study of Happiness February 7, 2009

Posted by esl5400 in Medicine, Philosophy of biology, Philosophy of mind, Social science.

·         Defining Happiness

Happiness is a state of mind or feeling such as contentment, satisfaction, pleasure, or joy

·         Measuring happiness

What causes happiness:  External stimuli (i.e.  Win the lottery; Get an A on an exam…)

The Satisfaction with Life Index was created by Adrian G. White, an Analytic Social Psychologist at the University of Leicester, using data from a metastudy.  It is an attempt to show life satisfaction (subjective life satisfaction) in different nations.

In this calculation, subjective well being correlates most strongly with health, wealth, and access to basic education

This is an example of a recent trend to use direct measures of happiness, such as surveys asking people how happy they are.  Some studies suggest that happiness can be measured effectively.

Ø  Interesting fact:  USA ranks 23rd in the world for overall self assessed satisfaction

Ways to measure happiness levels:                Self Assessment   (Surveys)                                                   Biochemical testing

ü  A chemical called Serotonin is believed by doctors and researchers as the neurological cause for happiness perception.  The influx in the level of Serotonin in your bloodstream can be the main cause for sadness, depression, and suicidal thoughts and feelings.

ü  Other “Drugs” can replace Serotonin with a stronger chemical in the brain, having a similar or increased effect

§  LSD

§  Ecstasy


Q:  So why measure happiness?

A:  Pharmaceuticals!

Although studies are performed to assess overall contentment, or to judge the effect of a change in outside influence, Doctors and biochemists want to create a solution to create a treatment to make people happier.

Testing (surveys or chemical) is done in laboratories to determine the effectiveness of the drugs in clinical trials. If we couldn’t effectively, repeatedly, and consistently measure happiness, then the entire market for medical research and development of happiness and/or depression would be futile. 




·         Example:  How stuff affects our happiness level

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – is a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter or, less frequently, in the summer, repeatedly, year after year.

The US National Library of Medicine states that “some people experience a serious mood change when the seasons change. They may sleep too much, have little energy, and crave sweets and starchy foods. They may also feel depressed.

There are many different treatments for classic (winter-based) seasonal affective disorder, including:  

§  Light therapies with bright lights

§  Anti-depression medication

§  Cognitive-behavioral therapy

Questions to consider:

*      Is happiness learned?

Ø   If so, how do babies recognize and respond in comfort to their mother, or to being fed, or held and rocked? 

Ø  If not, can this be broken down to and simply explained with brain chemistry and preprogrammed responses?

*      If we effectively argue that the feeling of happiness is no more than a scientifically explained organic chemistry problem, further resolved in human psychology, then what might be the social and moral repercussions or concerns that would be incurred? 

Ø  Consider:  does the same thing make two different people happy?  Can the effects of pleasure and happiness be predicted?

Ø  If happiness, love, and joy were simply preprogrammed responses to external stimuli, does that take away from the experience of happiness?

*       Could science ever get to the point where, through chemistry and medicine, happiness is measured on a point value system (based on Serotonin levels)?  Would people then choose certain experiences based on this quantitative approach?

Ø  Much like counting calories or carbohydrates when eating

Sources:              Wikipedia:

Ø  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness

Ø  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satisfaction_with_Life_Index

Ø  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seasonal_affective_disorder 


This is a copy of what I plan to present this comming Thursday for my class project on the study of happiness.  It covers a range of topics, but my focus is on the ability to study hapiness.  We begin by defining what we percieve happiness to be.  The two most common, and seemingly practical, ways of measuring happiness levels are the more popular (surveys) and the more precise (biochemical testing).  I will discuss the differences in these, and related them to how they are both used to better understand happiness, and therefore make better applications of medicine and making changes to your enviromnet, and how this call all have wither positive or negative impacts on your happiness level.  Please feel free to read my proposed topic questions to create a more intellectually stimulating conversatioons after my presentation.





1. ebrister - February 12, 2009

In class I suggested that we distinguish between research on depression, mental illness, mental states, etc. and the social scientific research on happiness.

Both are interesting topics, and both are areas of cutting-edge research. Although they intersect, the prominent researchers are from different fields. The philosophical challenges of depression and mental illness, including medication, have been explored now for a couple of decades. In a social/political theory course I once used Francis Fukuyama’s book “Our Posthuman Future,” which is skeptical of biotechnology and of pharmaceuticals that treat depression, ADHD, etc. I personally think that Fukuyama’s skepticism is unfounded and that medication for depression and other mental disorders is extremely useful.

Happiness research in the social sciences is still just emerging. It asks questions like, What makes people happy? Political freedom? Equality? Wealth? Health? Good relationships? Education? Doing what we love? Vacations? Good habits?

An excellent, if long, exploration of these questions and their relevance to public policy is on bloggingheads:

From the psychologists, we have Dan Gilbert, on TEDTalks:

And if you’d like to participate in some of this research, Martin Seligman has posted his research questionnaires. You can take surveys that have been analyzed, and you can also become one of his research subjects:

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