Social science has yet another ultra-specialized subfield to add to its constellation of disciplines. It's called "happiness studies," and it's growing quite rapidly. Will Wilkinson at Cato has even started a side project– Happiness and Public Policy— devoted to the intersection of the two fields, which admittedly come to loggerheads from time to time.

    And for good reason. How can you implement something so elusive, relative, and hard to pin down? Happiness scholars, for their part, are doing their best to puzzle this out, as well as dive deeper into questions of what happiness is. 

    A recent article in the Toronto Star provides a nice discussion of the movement, which formalized itself in 2000 with its own peer-reviewed journal, The Journal of Happiness Studies. The article details some recent findings in the discipline.

1. Happiness is not purely experiential. Something scholars term "affective forecasting" refers to the uniquely human ability to anticipate experiences and predict their potential happiness.

2. It's the duration of happiness, and not the intensity, that matters. Day-to-day pleasures like well-fitting clothes, or say, a nice lambic ale, often make us happier than monumental triumphs such as winning a million dollars, or being elected president. 

3. Even though we can predict happiness, we're not always good at it. A die-hard sports fan will often anticipate the dire emotional consequences of his or her team losing it all; and will, in reality, bounce back from such a setback much faster than anticipated. Research on Holocaust survivors, most of whom went on to live normal, productive lives, suggests the extent to which humans can overcome.

    It will be interesting to see where this scholarship moves. It is certainly a wonderful new lens through which we can view policy and social ordering. But I think it must be kept in check by other considerations– economic practicality, individual rights, etc.– and must not be overly essentialized. 

Daniel Corbett 

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