Making Sense of Happiness and Well-being?

Mark Cieslik, Northumbria University and David Bartram, University of Leicester explore how happiness research is on the rise

The growing interest in happiness and well-being?

The contemporary interest in well-being began in the 1950s with the World Health Organisation developing new ways of measuring and promoting international development. This was the beginning of efforts to include notions such as quality of life and subjective well-being into existing approaches of development that had emphasised economic growth and prosperity as key indicators of social progress. Recent decades have seen much debate and research into the attributes of a ‘good life’ and the ‘good society’ – how these would be experienced subjectively and how they might be created objectively by public policy. Many governments now conduct national well-being surveys, keen to explore the impact on subjective well-being of changes in society particularly in employment, technology and family formation.

What is Happiness?

Though the idea of happiness seems a simple and ubiquitous feature of modern societies, commentators point to various ways of understanding well-being. We can distinguish between popular notions of happiness as personal experiences of good feeling (joy and pleasure in contrast to suffering), more ‘scientific’ concepts such as subjective well-being that refer to the balance of positive and negative experiences we have (and reflect on) and finally objective or structural features of well-being such as income, family structure, community services and housing. Researchers (usually employing survey techniques) then try to correlate the structural features of societies with how these features are experienced by individuals. Hence well-being surveys from the British Office of National Statistics can tell us about variations in well-being by region of the UK and how these vary with certain characteristics such as health, education and employment status. These sorts of surveys usually offer us unremarkable insights into the nature of well-being – that higher incomes, satisfying employment, good health and secure family relationships (for example) are all important to happiness. The British economist Richard Layard has documented these trends in well-being research, championing policies that support families and communities and promote good mental health.

Critical Approaches to Happiness and Well-being

These trends have sparked much critical debate about the usefulness of “well-being” for evaluating social progress and the lives of individuals. Some social scientists are sceptical of the recent interest in well-being and happiness, suggesting that this trend reflects the individualism or even the narcissism of the age. Thus happiness and subjective well-being have been colonised by corporations and are now used to make us feel insecure about our lives – we all have to try and be happy, and popular routes to well-being involve ever greater consumption as a path to happiness. Some instead suggest that traditional concepts of inequality, poverty or disadvantage still offer greater insights into the nature of modern societies and the life chances of citizens than a focus on well-being. Others point to the crude way that well-being is understood and employed in surveys – the impossibility of capturing complex emotions and experiences with simple questions and scales. It is not obvious that responses from individuals about their happiness can be aggregated to create maps about the relative well-being of different areas of the UK. Some researchers therefore call for more complex survey techniques that can grasp the different ways that well-being is experienced at different levels – from individuals and families up to communities and regional processes.

Wellbeing as everyday practice

An alternative to survey research into well-being is to explore the ways that happiness is grounded in the everyday activities of individuals. Some researchers employ ethnographic and interview techniques to discern the different ways that well-being is experienced and pursued in different domains such as through families, partners, employment, leisure and friendships. Such approaches reflect the way Greek philosophers such as Aristotle suggested that happiness can have fleeting personal dimensions such as merry-making (Hedonia) yet also be rooted in more enduring and biographical projects that imply ‘working at happiness’ (Eudaimonia). A number of researchers are now investigating how happiness, though shaped by wider structural features in society, can also be a practical everyday accomplishment where individuals are often struggling to navigate their way through the challenges of life hoping to flourish as best they can. The happiness of individuals can reflect the sorts of resources they are able to mobilise (such as social networks and income) and also the sorts of decisions they make; likewise, different emotions, values and interests can inform the choices people make in their daily lives. Very often our efforts around well-being are focused on working at the happiness of others; care giving, compassion and altruism are still significant features of our lives. Thus these micro approaches to well-being, though appearing to focus on personal projects, also consider the important ways that well-being works at an inter-personal level – the notion of ‘social happiness’.

The promise of happiness research?

Andrew Sayer (2011) has recently suggested that our pursuit of well-being is something that we all do – it is something that really matters to us all – yet is something that is often overlooked by social scientists fixated on the pathologies of modern societies. The promise of a more sustained critical engagement with well-being – how it is experienced and can be promoted – is that it offers us a way of rethinking some of the major challenges we face today. What constitutes satisfaction with life or quality of life and how public policy can deliver these are fundamental questions in contemporary societies. At a time of austerity and hardship it might seem bizarre to research happiness, but this is perhaps precisely the time to explore what it means to be content and fulfilled and indeed to flourish.

In recent decades we have had increasingly sterile debates between Left and Right about how to recast the contract between the individual and the state. Growing inequalities, the powerlessness of citizens and the rising influence of corporations all suggest that there are limits to what markets can achieve (Sandel, 2012). Yet some of our efforts to regulate markets appear ineffectual and suggestions of a return to state management of services appear anachronistic for many. As we find ourselves caught between market or state systems, can a sustained analysis of well-being and how individuals and communities flourish help us achieve a better understanding of what makes a good society and a good life?


Sandel, M. (2012) What Money Cannot Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. London: Allen Lane.

Sayer, A. (2011) Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Originally published in Sociological Research Online Blog May 2014.

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