Who’s the happiest country of them all? According to the World Happiness Report, a recently-released ranking of happiness levels worldwide, Denmark tops the list in terms of GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support, trust, perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity. But should happiness really be a matter of scientific and social inquiry? Jacolyn M. Norrish and Dianne A. Vella-Brodrick explore.

In order to determine whether it makes sense to study happiness, you must first define it—and Norrish and Vella-Broderick look at multiple ways to characterize the smiling state. There’s eudaimonic happiness, in which individuals realize their potential, and authentic happiness, in which people live a life that is pleasant (maximizing positive experiences), good (supportive of the development of “signature strengths” and virtues through enjoyable activities), and meaningful (filled with contribution to the greater good).

Norrish and Vella-Broderick also explore the so-called happiness set point theory, which holds that an individual’s happiness levels will remain consistent over time despite their life circumstances. While the idea that happiness is somehow pre-determined can be depressing indeed, it’s intriguing to psychologists who explore the nuances of set points, such as the fact that they seem to differ from person to person and are generally above neutral.

Happiness could be a trait, or perhaps a relative and evasive goal. Or perhaps it could be increased by a simple theory: S (set happiness point) C (circumstances) + V (voluntary factors under a person’s own control). Gratitude could make people more happy, or maybe the fact that happiness and material acquisition are apparently unrelated once a person has their basic needs met. National measures of happiness, like the one pursued in the World Happiness Report, could help explain and define happiness, too—or health, or resilience, or relationships, or even positive thinking.

But does it all matter? Can such a subjective field of study ever be of use? Yes, insist Norrish and Vella-Broderick. They find meaning in the scientific inquiry of happiness and hold that, by holding positive emotions and mental states up next to negative ones, significant knowledge about psychology can be gained. Studying happiness doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking at sadness, too—and perhaps scientists will one day discover the secret sauce that can bring more joy to everyone else. Until then, it’s Denmark all the way—or whichever country tops next year’s list.



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Social Indicators Research, Vol. 87, No. 3 (Jul., 2008), pp. 393-407