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HOW UNIVERSAL IS HAPPINESS?

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ANNA2011

# 1 στις 22/6/2011
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How universal is happiness?

Concept of happiness
A preliminary step is to define happiness, since some of the things denoted using this word can be less universal than others things called by the same name. I use the word “happiness” for a subjective state of mind, which I define as the overall appreciation of one’s life as –a whole. I have elaborated this definition in earlier publications (Veenhoven, 1984 chapter 2; Veenhoven, 2000). This definition fits Jeremy Bentham’s classic notion of happiness as “the sum of pleasures and pains.” Happiness in this sense is synonymous with “life satisfaction” and “subjective well-being”. Additionally, I distinguish two “components” of happiness: an affective component and a cognitive component. The affective component is how well one typically feels. I call this the hedonic level of affect. The cognitive component is the perceived difference between what one has and what one wants in life, which I call contentment. I assume that these components serve as subtotals in the overall evaluation of life.

DO WE ALL APPRAISE HOW MUCH WE LIKE LIFE?
Above, I distinguished between overall happiness and its components and assumed that the components serve as subtotals in the overall evaluation of life. Do all humans appraise their life in these ways?
Hedonic level of affect
Like other higher animals, humans experience positive and negative affects. This is not just something we know from our own experience, it is also something we can recognize in the facial expressions of other people all over the world (Ekman, 1970). Using brain imaging we can now also observe part of the neural processes that make us feel so (e.g., Davidson, 2004) and these neurological structures do not differ across cultures either. The balance of positive and negative affects is reflected in the hedonic tone of “mood.” Though mood is something we are aware of, it is mostly not in the foreground of our consciousness. Still, it is assessable, and we can estimate how well we feel most of the time. Babies are not yet able to engage in such reflection, but they still experience happy or unhappy moods. Although they cannot report how they typically feel, their mood level can be assessed using behavioral indications. This case of babies illustrates that one can be happy without having a concept of happiness in mind. Adult humans know typically how well they feel most of the time and this appears in the practice of measurement. When asked how well they usually feel, people answer instantly. The non-response rate tends to be small. Self-ratings of average hedonic level do not differ much from the balance scores scientists compute from responses to multiple questions about specific affects and do not differ substantially from ratings based on experience sampling or from ratings by intimates

Contentment
Unlike their fellow animals, humans can develop ideas of what they want from life and then compare these aspirations with the realities of their life. This faculty is not present from birth on, but develops on the road to adulthood. There is no doubt that all adults have wants, even ascetics who want to denounce all wants still have the desire to denounce wants. There is also no doubt that most adults have an idea of how well their wants are being met, at least about important wants. Wants are often not very specific, and few people have clear priorities in mind; nevertheless, most people have no problem in estimating of how successful they are in getting what they want from life. Several survey studies have involved questions about what one wants from life and the degree to which one sees these wants being met. A common question is: “So far, I have gotten the important things I want in life” (item in Diener’s “Satisfaction with Life Scale,” Diener et al., 1985). The responses tend to be prompt, and the percentage of respondents who use the “Don’t know” option is very low. So, apparently, this question links up with something people have in mind. Even if people have no overall judgment of success already in mind, they appear able and willing to make one when asked. This appears in the practice of focused interviews, in life-review interviews in particular. Like in the case of hedonic level it is not required that people have made up their mind: an external observer can estimate someone’s overall contentment based on that person’s reported success in meeting specific wants.

Overall happiness
Given the above, it is no surprise that people have no problem in reporting how much they like their life-as-a-whole. Responses to questions on overall happiness are typically prompt. If not, happiness would not be such a common item in survey research. The non-response level to questions on happiness is typically low. Fewer than 1 percent use the “Don’t know” option, and few people skip the question Non-response is much higher on questions about other issues such as income and political preference. Questions on lifesatisfaction are also easily answered in non-modern societies, such as the Inughuit, the Amish, and the Maasai (Biswas-Diener et al., 2005).

ARE THE CONSEQUENCES OF HAPPINESS SIMILAR?
Research into happiness has focused on its determinants in the first place; however, there is also a strand of investigation into the consequences of enjoying life or not (Veenhoven, 1989a; Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). Fredrickson (2004) has summarized much of the findings in the “broaden and build theory” of positive affect. Although most of this research has been
done in Western nations, the observed effects are also likely to exist in other parts of the world.
Happiness fosters functioning
Happiness appears to encourage engagement, while unhappiness tends to instigate withdrawal. This appears as greater engagement in activity at word and in leisure. The energizing effect of happiness manifests also in social behavior: happiness predicts the formation of friendships, entering marriage and participation in voluntary organizations. There is also experimental evidence of happy moods’ broadening perception and enhancing creativity. All this is compatible with the above-mentioned theory that happiness works as a
“go signal”, and that this effect seems to exists also in other higher animals. If so, the effect is likely to be universal.

Happiness lengthens life
Another illustrative finding is that happiness fosters physical health and that happiness therefore lengthens life considerably. One of the mechanisms seems to be that happiness encourages the full functioning of mind and body and thus keeps us in shape. Another mechanism is probably that unhappiness triggers the fight or flight response, since it signals that there is something wrong. It is well known that this automatic reaction makes an organism economize on other functions, among them the immune response. In this line,
Cohen (1995) has demonstrated experimentally that unhappiness makes people more susceptible to catching a common cold. The above are essentially biological reactions that are unlikely to differ much across cultures. Possibly there are effects of happiness that do differ across cultures, but for the time being, it is the universality strikes the eye.

REFERENCES
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