Happiness and Positive Psychology – an interview with Ruut Veenhoven

Happiness and Positive Psychology – an interview with Ruut Veenhoven

Positive Psychology Leaders Interview with Ruut Veenhoven

by David Pollay, IPPA Associate Executive Director (bio)

Ruut Veenhoven, Ph.D., is a member of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) Board of Directors, and is one of the leading positive psychology scholars in the world. Dr. Veenhoven will join us September 22, 2008 at 1:00p.m. GMT, as part of our 2008 Positive Psychology Leaders Series. IPPA members will be able to register for the call when details are sent out in early September.

David J. Pollay: Ruut, you began your effort to aggregate and organize happiness research in the early 1980s, first in two books, and then in a website that became the World Database of Happiness. What was your inspiration to undertake this effort and what function do you see the database playing now and in the future?

Ruut: I see much sense in the principle that we should aim at greater happiness for a greater number of people, not only in choices in our private life, but also in public choice. To follow that principle, we must know what makes people happy. I had expected to learn about that during my study in sociology in the 1960s, but there was no happiness in the curriculum. When reading on happiness by myself, I encountered a lot of speculation but little established fact. I began collecting the scarce empirical research findings on happiness. My first paper in 1969 reported the results of a dozen empirical studies, which were already quite enlightening since they showed that happiness is the rule in modern society rather than exception. Research on happiness has boomed since, and I have kept on gathering the findings. By now I have thousands of findings in my World Database of Happiness, both findings on how happy people are in different times and places (distributional findings) and findings on things that go together with happiness (correlational findings).

The main purpose of the database is to advance the accumulation of factual knowledge about happiness. It does so by selecting research findings on happiness in the sense of life-satisfaction and presenting these findings in a uniform and comparable way. The database is a source for research synthesis. It allows a view on universal conditions for happiness as well as on variations across time and culture. The more data we gather, the more useful this tool becomes, since it becomes ever more difficult to distinguish the forest from the trees.

David: You have focused much of your attention on the measurement and study of happiness in nations. What connection have you found between the economic prosperity in nations and the happiness levels of its citizens?

Ruut: There is no doubt that people live much happier in rich nations than in poor nations. There was some doubt on whether economic growth is paralleled by a rise in happiness, but now we know that this is typically the case. So there is a clear correlation between economic development and happiness. Yet we are still largely in the dark about the causal mechanisms behind that correlation. Is the greater happiness caused by increased consumption or is it rather in things that go together with economic development, such as greater gender equality and more choice? It is also possible that happiness drives economic growth, e.g. by its effects on creativity and health. In time we will learn, or better, larger time-series will.

David: You advocate that governments should focus on improving their citizens ‘satisfaction with life.” Would you tell us more about why you believe the ‘satisfaction with life” measure is the best filter for determining which governmental initiatives are most worthy of undertaking?

In my view, governments should not only be concerned with happiness, but also with other valuable matters such as justice and environmental protection, which are not always compatible with happiness. Still, aiming at happiness is quite important for a number of reasons. An obvious reason is that most people prefer a happy life over an unhappy life; only some weird philosophers are against happiness. A less obvious reason is that happiness has various beneficial consequences, both for the individual (e.g. better health) and for society (e.g. better citizens). This must appeal to the grumpy philosophers who reject happiness as such. Still another non-obvious reason is that happiness reflects how well humans thrive, especially when combined with longevity. The number of happy life years lived in a country indicates how well society fits human needs. So in pursuing greater happiness for a greater number, governments improve the fit between human nature and human civilization. This latter argument will appeal to humanists who value human nature, but it will not convince preachers of penitence who see human nature as a bin of sin.

David: Considering the last question, nations of the world are becoming increasingly interconnected through technology, commerce, tourism, and the media. How should multi-national organizations like the United Nations, or the European Union, as two examples, use the ‘satisfaction with life” measure as a guide for prioritizing which programs get funded and implemented?

Ruut: Yes, I think so and I would particularly recommend that they measure the number of ê¢__‘–happy life years” produced by nations. Happy Life Years (HLY) should become a performance indicator next to Gross national Product (GNP). This indicator is not only useful for assessing the long-term effect of particular programs, but can also serve as a general measure of social progress in nations.

David: You have written that the best quality of life measure is “how long and happily people live.” Would you tell us more about how you measure happiness in this equation?

Ruut: Happiness in nations can be measured using responses to survey questions such as: “Taking all together, how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your life-as-a-whole these days? Please express in a number from 1 to 10″. On the basis of responses to such questions in a sample of the general population, we can estimate average happiness in nations. For almost all nations we also know how long people have lived in earlier generations, and on that basis we can estimate the longevity of the present generation. This estimate is called ê¢__‘–life-expectancy”. This information on happiness and longevity can easily be combined by multiplying life-expectancy in a country with average happiness on scale 0-1. For example, if people live 60 years in a country and they are all perfectly happy (average score 10), than that country produces 60 x 1 = 60 happy life years. If average happiness is 7 rather than 10, the country produces 60 x 0.7 = 42 happy life years. The highest number of happy life years is currently observed in Switzerland (63.9) and the lowest number in Zimbabwe (11.5).

David: Following up on the last question, what do you believe the research says about what contributes most reliably to our happiness? Said another way, what should people prioritize in their lives if they want to be happy?

Ruut: I cannot answer that question since there is no one thing that is most important. It is like asking what is more important for your health; genes or environment, eating or drinking? Still I can say that at the level of nations freedom, democracy and good governance are quite important, while income equality appears not to make much of a difference. At the individual level it is also clear that, mental health is quite important and typically more important for happiness than physical health. In that context it is worth noting that we invest far more in physical health than in mental health.

David: You have written that it remains harder to attract funding for happiness-related studies than it is for studies of depression and disease. What do you believe has to happen in order to draw more support to happiness research?

Ruut: We should not rely too much on state funding for happiness research, but mobilize parties that have a vested interest in happiness. One such party is health insurance companies. Since happiness reduces the chance of falling ill, they can spare on sickness payments if they make their clients somewhat happier for a lower price. Next to suppliers there are also consumers who have an interest in happiness. If you select a care home for your dementing mother, you”d like to know how effective that home is in producing happy life years. Patient organizations can press for comparative research on that matter in much the same way as consumer unions compare the cost-effectiveness of refrigerators. The same goes for happy life years produced by schools. The trick is to instigate competition on happiness outcomes among care-homes and schools. Once we get that ball rolling, market forces will do the rest.

David: Ruut, would you tell us more about your current projects and where you expect your focus will be over the next few years?

Ruut: My first concern is continuation of the World Database of Happiness after my time. At my university I have good facilities for working on this project after my retirement, but as yet I have no successor. So I am now open for handing over the project to interested colleagues who can mobilize the required funds and statistical expertise.

Apart from that I plan to instigate research on the long-term consequences of major life-choices, such as having children or not, working full-time or part-time and retiring late or early. We all make such choices in our lives, but we can only guess about the consequences for our happiness. We could make more informed choices if we knew how such choices had panned out for people like us, who made such choices ten years ago. We can inform people about that by means of large-scale long-term follow-up studies. This approach is comparable to evidence based health education. I see this as a non-paternalistic way of creating greater happiness for a greater number.

David: Thank you Ruut for everything you are doing for IPPA and for positive psychology in general. And thank you for your time today. We look forward to your call with the IPPA Membership next month.

Ruut: David, I enjoyed it. I am looking forward to our call with everyone next month.