The concept of happiness

The word 'happiness' is used in various ways. In the widest sense it is an umbrella term for all that is good. In this meaning it is used interchangeably with terms like 'wellbeing' or 'quality of life' and denotes both individual and social welfare. Over time different notions on the good life have been developed and used for different purposes in different contexts (Veenhoven 2015). EHERO focusses on happiness defined as the subjective enjoyment of one’s life-as-a-whole; in other words: on life-satisfaction. The text below clarifies this specific definition of happiness and differences with other notions of the good life are discussed.

Four qualities of life

Quality-of-life concepts can be sorted using two distinctions, which together provide a fourfold matrix (Veenhoven 2000). The first distinction is between chances and outcomes, that is, the difference between opportunities for a good life and the good life itself. This distinction is common in the field of public health, where pre-conditions for good health, such as adequate nutrition, are seldom mixed up with health in itself. The second difference is between outer and inner qualities of life, in other words between 'external' and 'internal' qualities of life. In the first case quality is in the environment, in the latter it is in the individual. Lane (1994) makes this distinction clear by distinguishing 'quality of society' from 'quality of persons'. The combination of these two dichotomies yields the fourfold matrix presented in Scheme 1.

Scheme 1: Four qualities of life

 Outer qualitiesInner qualities
Life chances

Livability of environment

Life-ability of the person

Life results

Usefulness of life

Satisfaction with life


Livability of the environment

The left top quadrant of scheme 1 denotes the meaning of good living conditions, in brief ‘livability’.  Economists refer to this quality as (wider) ‘welfare’. Ecologists see livability in the natural environment and focus on things such as fresh air and scenic beauty. City planners see livability in the built environment and associate it with such things as sewer systems, public transportation and safety in the streets. In the sociological view, society is central. Livability is associated with the quality of society as a whole and also with the position one has in society. 

Livability is not what is called ‘happiness’ here. It is rather a precondition for happiness and not all environmental conditions are equally conducive to happiness.

Life-ability of the person

The right top quadrant of scheme 1denotes inner life-chances. That is: how well we are equipped to cope with the problems of life. Sen (1992) calls this quality of life variant 'capability'. EHERO prefers the simple term 'life-ability', which contrasts elegantly with 'livability'.

The most common depiction of this quality of life is absence of functional defects. This is 'health' in the limited sense, sometimes referred to as 'negative health'. Next to absence of disease, one can consider excellence of function. This is referred to as 'positive health' and associated with energy and resilience. A further step is to evaluate life-ability in a developmental perspective and to include acquisition of new abilities. From this point of view a middle-aged man is not 'well' if he behaves like an adolescent, even if he functions without problems at this level. In this meaning life-ability extends to ‘self-actualization’. Lastly, the term 'art of living' denotes special life-abilities such as savouring refined enjoyments and developing an original style of life.

Ability to deal with life will mostly contribute to an individual’s happiness, but it is not identical. One can be quite competent, but still be unhappy because of bad external conditions.

Usefulness of life

The left bottom quadrant of scheme 1 represents the notion that a good life must be good for something more than itself. This assumes some higher values. There is no current generic term for these external outcomes of life. Gerson (1976: 795) refers to this variant as 'transcendental' concepts of quality of life. Another appellation is 'meaning of life', which then denotes 'true' significance instead of mere subjective sense of meaning. We prefer the simpler 'utility of life'.

A useful life is not necessarily a happy life; positive external effects may require sacrifice of individual satisfaction and usefulness may appear long after one’s death.

Subjective enjoyment of life

Finally, the bottom right quadrant of scheme 1 represents the inner outcomes of life. That is life quality in the eye of the beholder. As we deal with conscious humans, this quality boils down to subjective enjoyment of life.

This meaning dominates in daily language. When talking about how happy they are, people typically denote how much they like the life they live. EHERO focuses on happiness in this sense.

Four kinds of satisfaction

Even when we focus on subjective satisfaction with life, there are still different meanings associated with the word happiness. These meanings can also be charted in a fourfold matrix. In this case, the classification is based on the following dichotomies: Life-aspects versus life-as-a-whole and passing delight versus enduring satisfaction. When combined, these distinctions produce the fourfold matrix presented in scheme 2. Though related, these variants of satisfaction are essentially different.

Scheme 2: Four kinds of satisfaction

Part of life


Satisfaction with parts of life

Life as a whole

Peak experience

Life satisfaction (Happiness)



The top-left quadrant of scheme 2 represents passing enjoyment of life-aspects. Examples would be delight in a cup of tea at breakfast, the satisfaction of a chore done or the enjoyment of a piece of art. This category is denoted using different terms, Kahneman (1999:4) speaks of 'instant-utilities’. We refer to this category as 'pleasure'.

So, the concept of happiness used here is broader than passing pleasure. Though fleeting enjoyment obviously contributes to a positive appreciation of life it is not the whole of it.

Satisfaction with parts of life

The top right quadrant of scheme 2 denotes enduring appreciation of parts of life. This can be satisfaction with aspects of life, such as its variety or meaningfulness or satisfaction with particular domains of life such as marriage and work. 

Partial satisfactions are often denoted as happiness: e.g. a happy marriage, happy with one's job, etc. Yet we will use the term happiness is used in the broader sense of satisfaction with life-as-a-whole. One would not call a person happy who is satisfied with their marriage and job, but still dissatisfied on the whole because of failing health. It is even possible that someone is satisfied with all the domains one can think of, but nevertheless feels depressed.


The bottom left quadrant of scheme 2 denotes the combination of passing experience and appraisal of life-as-a-whole. That combination occurs typically in peak-experiences, which involve short-lived but intense feelings and the perception of wholeness. This is the kind of happiness poet's write about. 

Again this is not the kind of happiness aimed at here. A moment of bliss is not enduring appreciation of life. In fact such top-experiences even seem detrimental to lasting satisfaction, possibly because of their disorientating effects (Diener et. al. 1991).

Ongoing satisfaction with one's life-as-a-whole

Lastly, the bottom-right quadrant of scheme 2 represents the combination of enduring satisfaction with life-as-a-whole.  A synonym would be ‘life-satisfaction'. 

This meaning in central in current ‘happiness economics’ and is also the focus of the Journal of Happiness Studies and the World Database of Happiness. This is also the meaning the Jeremy Bentham had in mind when formulating his ‘greatest happiness principle’. Speaking about happiness as the 'sum' of pleasures and pains he denoted a balance over time and thus a durable matter.

Definition of happiness

Happiness is the degree to which an individual judges the overall quality of his/her own life-as-a-whole favourably. In other words: how much one likes the life one leads. This definition is explained in more detail in Veenhoven (1984:22-25, 2000).

Components of Happiness

Humans are capable of evaluating their life in two ways. We have in common with all higher animals that we can appraise our situation affectively. We feel good or bad about particular things and our mood level signals overall adaptation. As in animals these affective appraisals are automatic, but unlike other animals, humans can reflect on this experience. We have an idea of how we have felt over the last year, while a cat does not. Humans can also judge life cognitively by comparing life-as-it-is with notions of how-it-should-be.  Veenhoven (1984, 2009) refers to these appraisals as hedonic level of affect and contentment and sees them as sub-totals in an inclusive evaluation of life, which he calls overall happiness

Hedonic level of affect

Hedonic level of affect is the degree to which various affects that someone experiences are pleasant in character and this reflects typically in ‘mood’. A person's average hedonic level of affect can be assessed over different periods of time: an hour, a week, a year, as well as over a lifetime. The focus here is on 'characteristic' hedonic level. That is so to say: the average over a long time-span such as a month or a year. 


Contentment is the degree to which an individual perceives his/her aspirations are met. The concept presupposes that the individual has developed some conscious wants and has formed ideas about their realization. The factual correctness of this idea is not at stake. The concept concerns the individual's subjective perception. 

There is mounting evidence that affective experience dominates one’s overall evaluation of life. This fits the theory that affects are the basic orientation system in mammals and that cognition evolved later in evolution and functions as an addition to rather than as a substitute of affective orientation (Veenhoven 2009). 

Dealing with related concepts

The focus of EHERO is on happiness in the sense of life-satisfaction, and the word will be used only in this meaning.  This is not to say that related notions of the good life are ignored. Much of the research will be about the relation between happiness and other qualities of life.  One of the questions is what environmental conditions (top-left quadrant in scheme 1) add most to happiness (bottom-right) and which competences (top-right) are the most important for leading a happy life (bottom-right) in contemporary society. The question of the relative value of happiness is also on the agenda. 

EHERO will neither ignore other kinds of satisfaction than life-satisfaction, though the variants will typically be considered in their mutual relation. One of the questions is about the factors that determine daily mood and to what extent that translates to life-satisfaction. Another question is what factors determine satisfaction in particular domains, such as work, and to what degree these causes overlap with determinants of life-satisfaction.

EHERO remains open for new notions of the good life, but will not call that ‘happiness’.                                                                         


  • Bentham, J (1789) An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, London
  • Diener, E., Pavot, W. & Sandvik, E. (1991) Happiness is the frequency, not intensity of positive and negative affect, In: Strack, F. et. al. (eds.) ‘Subjective wellbeing’, Pergamon, London
  • Gerson, E.M. (1976), On quality of life, American Sociological Review, 41: 793-806
  • Kahneman, D. (1999), Objective happiness, In Kahneman, D., Diener, E. & Schwarz, N. (Eds.) ‘Wellbeing: foundations of hedonic psychology’, New York U.S.A., Russell Sage Foundation, pp.3-25
  • Lane, R.E. (1994) Quality of life and quality of persons. A new role for government? Political theory,  22: 219-252
  • Sen, A. (1992) Capability and wellbeing, In: Sen, A. & Nussbaum, M. (Eds.) ‘The quality of life’, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK, pp. 30-53
  • Veenhoven, R. (1984), Conditions of happiness, Kluwer (now Springer), Dordrecht, Netherlands
  • Veenhoven, R. (2000), The four qualities of life, Ordering concepts and measures of the good life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 1: 1-39
  • Veenhoven, R. (2009), How do we assess how happy we are? Tenets, implications and tenability of three theories, in: Dutt, A. K. & Radcliff, B. (eds.) ‘Happiness, Economics and Politics: Towards a multi-disciplinary approach’, Edward Elger Publishers, Cheltenham UK, ISBN 978 1 84844 093 7, Chapter 3, page 45-69
  • Veenhoven, R. (2015) Happiness: History of the concept  In: James Wright (Ed.) International Encyclopaedia of Social and Behavioural Sciences, 2nd edition Vol. 10 pp 521-525, Oxford Elsevier

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