The researchers of EHERO study happiness in various aspects and at different scales varying from happiness at work, happiness of nations, countries, regions, neighborhoods to the individual level. Generally, most research is related to the field of Happiness Economics. Our mission is to contribute to greater happiness for a greater number of people. We do this by providing evidence based knowledge about happiness, with the aim of promoting better informed choices throughout society, be it at the level of governments, organizations or individuals.
Economics has traditionally been concerned with furthering utility. The term ‘welfare economics’ indicates the desire of economists to improve the quality of life. While sometimes people equate economic welfare with things like GDP, this is clearly at variance with the roots of economics. Welfare relates to wider well-being, in economics typically labelled ‘utility’. The concept of ‘utility’ has a long tradition but the term appears to have been used to mean different things, e.g. for ‘welfare’, ‘satisfaction’, ‘preference’, or, also happiness. The exact meaning and measurability of utility has always been a matter for discussion (Van Praag, 1993). Cohen (1993) indicates that two common interpretations of utility are (i) preference satisfaction and (ii) hedonic welfare. In the latter interpretation, utility may be seen as synonymous with happiness in the sense of life-satisfaction. This then obviously traces back to the utilitarian principle of the ‘greatest happiness’. Happiness then is seen as the ultimate maximand of human actions, and therefore commonly is considered to be more profound and evaluative than passing ‘pleasure’.
In order to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number, policy choices need to be made that commonly involve comparing individuals. In general terms, in classical welfare economics utilities were measured cardinally, could be added across individuals and the social optimum was reached when this sum was at a maximum, assuming a given population (Brouwer et al., 2008) A major problem for economists was the growing awareness that interpersonal comparisons of utility (happiness) are difficult, if not impossible. How can we compare, in an absolute sense, happiness scores if we cannot observe the underlying individual ‘happiness scale’? This not only gave rise to new, neo-classical, streams of welfare economics (e.g. Partian welfare economics), but also reduced the emphasis on measuring happiness. Instead, ordinal comparisons of states of the world became more common. Such developments, and the underlying debates, also show the potential for more fundamental work in the field of happiness research and the potential merit of multi-disciplinary research, e.g. between economics and philosophy.
In recent years, the measurement of ‘happiness’ has become more popular again, in empirical research (e.g. Easterlin, 1995; Oswald, 1997; Kahneman et al., 1997; Frey and Stutzer, 2002). In this genre, a measure of ‘happiness’ is used as a proxi for welfare and is understood to have a deeper meaning than mere pleasure. (Brouwer et al., 2008). Ferrer-i-Carbonell and Frijters (2004) interpret happiness questions as describing ‘general satisfaction’, which can be seen as “a positive monotonic transformation of an underlying metaphysical concept called welfare” Although some economists (re-)entered the happiness field as early as the 1970s (e.g. Easterlin 1974), happiness economics really took off in the late 1990s and leading books appeared in the early 2000s, e.g. Frey & Stutzer in 2002 and Van Praag and Ferrer-i-Carbonal in 2004.
While the field is still in development, there is a growing stream of publications and some 600 subscribers to a service that keeps track of these (nep-hapOpens external). As yet, there is little institutionalization. The Erasmus Happiness Research Organization EHERO aims at bringing more organization into happiness economics and establish links with happiness researchers in other disciplines. In doing so, it will also draw on sub-disciplines, such as ‘behavioural economics’ and ‘health economics’, where the development of theory and practice in measuring happiness-like outcomes such as ‘health related quality of life’, may provide lessons.
Areas of application
Happiness research can be important in many different types of economic research and in various sub-disciplines. This may include Development economics, where happiness may be one important outcome measure (next to others such as ‘capabilities’ and life-expectancy). In Marketing research the focus has been on expected utility and consumer satisfaction. It will be interesting for happiness research to learn from those experiences and, also, to study the effects of consumption of the life-satisfaction of consumers. For instance, learning more about how big purchases such as houses and pension plans work out on the happiness of the buyers, is an interesting research question. Human resource management is another area in which more happiness research could be fruitful and relevant. To see how job-satisfaction, on which there has been much focus, translates into life-satisfaction (and/or vice-versa) is important. Similarly for Health economics where happiness research would complement currently used measures of ‘health-related quality of life’ (HQOL). This is especially true for areas in which health improvement is not the main goal (e.g. the care sector) and where good outcome measures are currently lacking.
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