Growth of Happiness Research

Happiness has been a subject of philosophical speculation for a long time. Empirical research on happiness started in the 1960s in several branches of the social sciences. In sociology, the study of happiness developed from social indicators research. In this field, subjective indicators are used to supplement traditional objective indicators, and happiness became a main subjective indicator of social system performance (Andrews & Withey 1976, Campbell 1981). In psychology, the concept is used in the study of mental health. Jahoda (1958) saw happiness as a criterion for 'positive mental health', and items on happiness figured in the pioneering epidemiological surveys on mental health by Gurin, Veroff & Feld (1960) and Bradburn & Caplovitz (1965). At that time, happiness also figured in the ground-breaking cross-national study of ‘human concerns’ by Cantril (1965) and came to be used as an indicator of 'successful aging' in gerontology (Neugarten & Havinghurst 1961). Twenty years later, the concept appeared in medical outcome research. Happiness is a common item in questionnaires on 'health related quality of life' such as the much-used SF-36 (Ware, 1993). Since 2000, economists such Frey & Stutzer (2002) have also picked up the issue and a research strand of ‘happiness economics’ has been established.                

Most empirical studies on happiness are based on large-scale population surveys, but there are also many studies of specific groups, such as single mothers, students or lottery-winners. The bulk of these studies revolves around one-time questionnaire studies, but there are a number of follow-up studies and even some experimental studies. To date (2017) some 12000 research-reports have been published and the number of publications is increasing exponentially as shown in figure 1.

Problem of data-deluge

As the heap of research findings on happiness is growing, it becomes ever more difficult to oversee all the gathered facts. Typically we see the most recent facts at the top of the pile and a few particularly salient facts that are brought up over and again. Most fruits of empirical research fall out of sight and are often difficult to retrieve, even for interested specialists. The view on the available findings is also clouded by a confusion of tongues, the word ‘happiness’ is used in different meanings and the technical jargon varies across disciplines and times.  As a result, there is less accumulation of knowledge than the available data would permit and a lot of replication of work (Veenhoven 2009).  


  • Andrews, F.M.& Withey, S.B. (1976) Social indicators of well-being: American perceptions of life quality. Plenum Press, New York, USA
  • Bradburn, N.M.& Caplovitz, D. (1965) Reports on Happiness. A Pilot Study of Behavior Related to Mental Health. Aldine Publishing Company, 1965, Chicago, USA
  • Campbell, A. (1981) The sense of well-being in America. McGraw-Hill, New York, USA 
  • Cantril, H. (1965) The pattern of human concern. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, USA
  • Frey, B.S.& Stutzer, A. (2002) Happiness and economics. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NY, USA
  • Jahoda, M. (1958) Current concepts of positive mental health, Basic books, NY, USA
  • Neugarten, B.L., Havighurst, R.J. & Tobin, S.S. (1961) The Measurement of Life Satisfaction. Journal of Gerontology, 16, 134 -143
  • Veenhoven, R. (2009) World Database of Happiness: Tool for dealing with the data deluge, Psychological Topics (special issue on Positive Psychology) 2009, 18: 221-246
  • Veenhoven, R. (2020) World Database of Happiness - A 'findings archive'In: Maddison, D., Rehdanz, K. & Welsch, H. (Eds) Handbook of Wellbeing, Happiness and the Environment. Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham UK, 2020, Chapter 2, pp. 25-45
  • Ware JE Jr, Sherbourne CD. (1992) The MOS 36-item short-form health survey (SF-36), Conceptual framework and item selection, Medical Care. 30(6):473-83.

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