The idea that we can learn a lot by studying happiness has crept across the globe for the last few years. In a recent experiment at the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, 500 Danes were asked to refrain, for one week, from looking at Facebook (while a control group kept using). The researchers wanted to know how Facebook affects the happiness of the user.
Those who took this holiday said they felt happier in that week than usual. They went out more and talked to others more. R esearchers concluded that Facebook is "a non-stop Great News Channel with edited lives that distort the user's perception of reality." Users typically envy the Facebook-proclaimed happiness of their friends. As a result, they feel pressured to keep up.
That's a typical story about studying happiness. It's also typical of the way social-science projects end up echoing the attitudes of those who design them. It sounds as if the researchers went to considerable trouble to confirm what they already guessed was the truth. And this particular truth was precisely what readers of their report wanted to hear.
Like all professional groups seeking to become established, the happiness-research people reveal traces of what the psychologists call status anxiety. Their specialty faces heavy skepticism.
Most people find it hard to believe there's a lot to learn, statistically, about who is and who is not happy, and why. To many it seems so subjective: How can we trust answers in surveys?
Cynics guess that the whole idea is a boondoggle to keep academics employed.
Yet reports from the happiness industry stress that it's a growing field, useful to governments when assessing the health of their populations.
They do their work by asking about the possible reasons for happiness and try to find out how individuals feel about them.
They rank generosity as a component of happiness, for instance, and count the answers
to questions such as, "Have you donated money to a charity in the past month?" A corruptionfree environment being conducive to happiness, they ask respondents "Is corruption widespread throughout the government or not?" The researchers weigh the answers (that must be the hard part) and come up with numbers that indicate the outlook of whole populations.
It all goes into the UNbacked World Happiness Report, edited by three experts in the field, including John F. Helliwell, professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia and co-director of the program on "social interactions, identity, and wellbeing" in the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
The 2015 World Happiness Report claims there's a worldwide demand for more attention to happiness as a criterion for government policy, which is what professionals say when promoting their profession.
The report ranks 106 countries.
Switzerland turned out to be happiest, followed by Iceland, Denmark and Norway. Canada is in fifth place, the U.S. in 15th.
The least happy countries, by this accounting, are Greece, Lebanon, Hungary, Honduras and, finally, Tajikistan.
For all their earnestness, the people studying happiness have so far done little except increase the number of imponderables in their chosen subject.
This month, however, the Brookings Institution in Washington published a credible answer to one of the more interesting questions: Which human activity most often leads to happiness?
Two researchers, Carol Graham and Julia Ruiz Pozuelo, suggest we consider one factor that appears consistently across individuals, countries and cultures.
It's age. Happiness, generally, declines with age for about two decades from early adulthood until the middle years. And then it turns upward and increases as we age.
Controlling for marital status, gender, employment, and education, Graham and Pozuelo found that late-life happiness comes sooner in places that are generally happier and later in places that rank among the lowest in happiness.
But, one way or another, it comes, statistically speaking.
Graham and Pozuelo note that for those above 40 this is good news: The best is yet to come. For younger people, it provides some wisdom: Patience eventually pays off. For those who follow these studies, the good news is that if we live long enough most of us will experience a happy ending.