A Sociology of Happiness: reflections and perceptions
Department of Sociology University of Surrey Guildford, United Kingdom
The last thirty years have seen a rapid proliferation of social scientific research into happiness and well-being. In particular, social indicators research has emphasised the importance of happiness measures at a national level, alongside more traditional economic or 'objective' measures like GDP-growth and per-capita income, for the monitoring of societal progress. Much of this work - which mainly utilises measures of happiness derived from survey variables - has been undertaken within the disciplines of economics and psychology.
Despite all of this, the study of happiness within sociology has remained a rather under-researched area. This paper seeks to demonstrate the way in which sociology can problematise the idea of happiness that is conceived by both the public and other social scientists alike; what is it that is actually being measured? Why is it seen to be so important to have measures of happiness with which to monitor progress? Why is there this apparent 'obsession' with the achievement of happiness in contemporary western societies? And what are the different factors that make up the socio-cultural landscape upon which 'being happy' is located? Such questions are often overlooked in happiness research; instead, it is assumed to be a natural or inevitable goal toward which we as individuals aim in our everyday lives. This paper will put forward some arguments from sociological theory that help to answer these questions.
The paper then goes on to present some preliminary findings from a qualitative study in which in-depth interview data from a small sample of British adults highlight a number of ideas that together form a sociological understanding of people's perceptions of and reflections upon the idea of happiness. Two further questions are then raised: what can this tell us about the way in which happiness is socially constructed? And what are the implications of all of this for the measurement of happiness?