Fitting In and Getting Happy
Olga Stavrova, Dr. rer. pol., ist wiss. Mitarbeiterin am Institut für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie der Universität Köln.
Fitting In and Getting Happy
1 Happiness as a Subject of Scientific Inquiry
1.1 Happiness: The Old New Concept
Happiness is at the same time one of the newest and the oldest of scientific concepts. In philosophy, interest in the phenomenon of happiness dates back thousands of years, whereas in behavioral and social sciences just several decades. Does it mean that philosophers got to know their subject of study better than social scientists did? Not necessarily. A brief look at the history of European philosophy suggests that different philosophical schools could never reach an agreement on what happiness is. For example, in the classical era of Greek philosophy there was a variety of different schools of thought. For hedonists, happiness consisted in the maximization of pleasure (McMahon, 2004; Sumner, 1996). By contrast, Aristotle postulated that happiness (or what he called eudaimonia), consisted in possessing some desirable quality-virtue or perfection (Nettle, 2005). Stoic philosophers, led by Cicero, went even further and postulated that virtuous people are happy even when they are scorned by others.
In the Christian Middle Age, virtue coupled with faith and devotion to God became critical ingredients of happiness. In fact, the concept of a happy life itself was replaced by a happy after-life, meaning that there is only one place where mere mortals can be eventually happy-Heaven (Tatarkiewicz, 1976). In the nineteenth century, the pendulum swung back in the other direction. Utilitarian philosophers brought back the idea of pleasure as the major way to happiness. For example, Jeremy Bentham put forward the idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people (Bentham, 1907 ). Maximization of the happiness of the people was seen as the basis of legislation and morality. This trend has been thriving in the contemporary era as well. Today, happiness is more about good feelings than it is about good deeds (Kesebir & Diener, 2008; McMahon, 2006). Happiness is seen as a precious good in itself, which is worth pursuing. The idea of the pursuit of happiness found its way into the American Declaration of Independence, lists of national accounts indicators (Marks, Abdallah, Simms, & Thompson, 2006), national social policies (Priesner, 2001), and ultimately, social science journals.
Why did it take social scientists so long to recognize happiness as a subject of scientific study? Science values precision of definitions and measurements. For a long time, happiness has been considered as something fuzzy and immeasurable, that is to say, unscientific (Frey & Stutzer, 2002a). In addition, different social science disciplines had other reasons to ignore happiness as a subject of study. Sociologists have been always more interested in objective conditions of people's life leaving the study of individuals' appraisal of these conditions to psychologists (Veenhoven, 2008). Psychologists, in their turn, preferred studying negative phenomena such as depression or anxiety to positive ones (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999). For instance, for one psychological article concerned with positive states, there were 17 articles published on negative states throughout the 1980s (Myers & Diener, 1995). Finally, economists who based their microeconomic theories on people's utility at the same time assumed that no direct measurement of utility is needed to understand individuals' behavior and preferences, and were therefore not interested in studying happiness either (Frey & Stutzer, 2005).
The last quarter of the twentieth century heralded a change in the place happiness research occupied in social sciences. Sociologists grew interested in people's subjective experience and evaluations (Veenhoven, 2008). Economists, increasingly disappointed in classic models of homo economicus, turned toward the study of individual subjective experiences and discovered that happiness can be a reliable proxy measurement of people's utility (Frey & Stutzer, 2002a)