Informed pursuit of happiness

Calls for greater happiness are often accompanied by recommendations about the way to achieve it. At the individual level such advice typically involves ‘alternative’ ways of life, such as consuming less and meditating more, while at the political level greater happiness for a greater number is seen in terms of social reform, such as less economic competition and more family life (e.g. Layard 2005).

Yet a rational pursuit of happiness should be based on established fact rather than on ideological belief. As such the pursuit of greater happiness is similar to the pursuit of better health. In the past we have learned a lot from empirical research on conditions for good health and, using that information, we live now longer than ever before in human history. Likewise, orienting on scientific knowledge about happiness will probably mean that we will also live happier long lives.

lnformed pursuit of happiness requires answers to the following four basic questions:

1.    Is more happiness a realistic possibility?
If we have reached the maximum already, there is no point in striving for more. Likewise, there is little point in pursuing happiness, if happiness is relative and gains tend to be nullified by shifts in aspirations. The answering of this question requires knowledge on how happy people actually are and on stability and change in happiness over time.

2.    To what extent do we control our happiness?
If happiness appears to be a matter of fate, there is no point in pursuing it. The answering of this question requires knowledge about determinants of happiness and in particular about the effect of genetic dispositions.

3.    How can we get happier?
This question presents typically when we are faced with having to make major choices.
The answering of this question requires a realistic view on determinants of happiness, now in particular on conditions for happiness.

4.    How well will the pursuit of happiness fit with other things we value?
We typically aim at more things than just happiness and look for an optimal balance. The answering of this question further requires a view on the consequences of enjoying life or not

These information requirements figure on three levels: 1) the micro-level of individuals, 2) the meso-level of organizations and 3) the macro-level of nations.


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