Happiness professor Ruut Veenhoven investigates happiness of transgender people with grandson Jos

Sociologist Ruut Veenhoven (79) has been researching happiness all his life. Now the scientist is doing a very special study: together with grandson Jos, he is looking at how happy transgender people are. "To become happy you have to try out a lot and people do that all the time", Ruut says.

Ruut Veenhoven set up the World Database of Happiness which contains all the results of research on happiness. "There are more than a thousand subjects in it. It ranges from age and income, to orientation and gender identity. When Jos went into transition, I started looking extra for research on this. We listed all that research."

The preliminary report of this can be found online: https://personal.eur.nl/veenhoven/Pub2020s/TransGenderHappiness-ISQOLS.pdf

Jos works as a student assistant at our university and is doing the master's degree in Climate Physics at Utrecht University. "It's great fun to do research together with my grandfather. He has been doing research on happiness for 40 years, interesting to see that up close now and to help with that." Ruut concurs: "The days when we played football together are over, but this is also playing together. Very fun to do."

During and after a transition, happiness rises

The big question of the study is: how happy are transgender people? Unfortunately, the answer is that they are less happy than the average compatriot. How much less varies between forms of transition. Some go into medical transition, others only into social transition. They then choose for example to change their name and dress differently.

"You see people who would like to go into medical transition, but are not there yet, are unhappy. The moment they do go into medical transition or have completed it, they are a lot happier. In the Netherlands, waiting lists to go into transition are long. With this knowledge, that is extra distressing", Jos says. "A lot of research has been done on the effect of medical transition on happiness. Unfortunately, there is almost no research on the effect of social transition on happiness, while a proportion of transgender people leave it at that."

What exactly is happiness?

The word happiness has many meanings. "We limit ourselves to happiness in the sense of life satisfaction. That can be measured well with questions such as 'All things considered, how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your life as a whole these days? Please indicate that in a report grade from 0 to 10'," Ruut says. According to him, most people have an immediate answer there. "Only less than one per cent say they don't know."

Jos immediately adds to his grandfather: "For me, it's not difficult either. I give my life an eight." Ruut: "It sometimes happens that the grade is a lot lower a week later. Your relationship ends or something else happens, for example. Last year's Lockdown depressed happiness quite a lot, especially among young people. As a senior citizen, I was less affected by that, and give my own life a big eight. This does not distinguish me from the average Dutchman. Those give their lives a mark just under eight."

Dutch people increasingly happy

If you watch the news or read the newspapers you might expect something different, but Dutch people give their own lives a generous enough rating. Over the past 40 years, this has even risen from a mere seven to almost an eight. "The corona pandemic did take half a point off, but I expect this to recover quickly," Ruut said.

According to Ruut, happiness has increased because we can increasingly live a life that suits us. "The example of transgender persons is illustrative of this. It also applies to gay people. Or people who don't want children. In the past, none of that was possible. Nowadays it is much more accepted that you follow your own choice; even if your mother doesn't like it. And if you don't want to work full-time or have a career, you can do it too. Not only are the options greater, but I think we have also become better at deciding what we want for ourselves. There is more self-awareness."

"We see that the happiness of transgender persons increases with age. That's quite different when you compare it to the average happiness"

Geluksonderzoeker Ruud Veenhoven op de campus.

Acceptance most important thing

The greater the acceptance in a country for transgender people, the happier they are there. "We see the same with other minority groups", Jos says. "We also see that the happiness of transgender persons increases with age. That's quite different when you compare it to the average happiness. You don't see that there. My explanation is: the older someone is, the more likely they are to be who they want to be and be accepted by themselves and others."

Ruut: "The relationship with age has a bit of a U-shape. In your younger years you tend to be happier than in middle age, but in old age life becomes a bit more fun again. This is not only because of the good pension provisions in our country, but mainly because after retirement you have more freedom to do what you want and because you have gained the necessary life wisdom in the meantime. Among transgender people, we rather see a steady increase in their happiness over the years. That will largely be in learning to cope with the new gender identity and growing social acceptance."

Jos: "The fact that there are transgender people who are as happy as average indicates that it is also possible. That's the good news. The most striking thing about our research is that happiness is so different between people who want to transition but can't yet, and people who have already transitioned. That difference in happiness is SO huge."

How do you get happy? Try things out!

Jos: "People who are unsure about their gender identity I would advise: try things out. This is how you gain information about what feels good for you. It helped a lot for me to sit with a group of people and try out what it was like when people addressed me as 'he', and to use the name Jos. I found that this felt very good to me. And find people to talk to about it. If you don't really have people around you: find people online. There are also plenty of discussion groups for trans people, where you are especially welcome even if you don't know it all yet."

Ruut: "When are you happy? When you live a life that suits you. You have to try things out. A good example is: what kind of partner suits you? You can have thoughts about that, but you just have to try it out. People do that all the time. This is often accompanied by heartbreak, but you also learn from that. After stumbling, you still end up in a study, profession or relationship that suits you. You do have to have the guts to try things out."

Prof.dr Ruut Veenhoven

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