THE STORY OF HAPPINESS RESEARCH
This Chapter starts from a personal perspective, which coincidentally reflects the modern history of happiness science itself. It is an anecdotal history of my own research into the nature of happiness that I whimsically refer to, in my college lectures, as “The Second Greatest Story Ever Told: The Story of Happiness Research.” It’s a look behind the scenes, so to speak, at the way psychologists have studied human happiness and how the science has developed and grown over the years.
My own journey into happiness research began as I entered my graduate studies in Psychology. My academic history in diverse fields like philosophy, the humanities, art, history, and religion had led me to consider the larger questions of human existence. More and more, my thinking began to center on the issue of “happiness.” As I asked myself the same question I’ve already presented to you, “What is the most important thing in life?”, the answer, “happiness,” continued to emerge.
Human happiness appeared, again and again, as the most valued of all human quests. It appeared to be the central concern of most all psychological, philosophical, and theological thinking. Thus it seemed to me that the scientific study of happiness would most certainly be among the most important topics a young research psychologist might devote a career to. After all, What grander enterprise could there be than to understand human happiness? And what greater achievement might there be than to find scientific clues to its attainment, if that were possible?
As I first became interested in happiness as a serious research topic, I assumed that there would be a wealth of scientific data already accumulated in the field. One would think that psychologists would have studied such an important topic as happiness extensively. But, in fact, this was not the case.
I was quite shocked, at first. An exhaustive search of the literature found that very few scientific studies had ever been done! The literature on depression and negative emotion, on the other hand, filled volumes in the references, but surprisingly, studies on happiness were few and far between.
It didn’t seem right. Perhaps, I’d missed something… The most important thing in life? A central issue of philosophical and psychological theory? One of the most universal human desires? Hardly studied at all?
Sadly, it was true — happiness had hardly been studied. I discovered, what Raymond Dodge (one of the early founders of the American Psychological Association) had seen over a half-century earlier:
“… the fact is uncontestable that happiness is an important, if not the most important, aim of human endeavor. Notwithstanding this fact, it has received no commensurate scientific attention. The theory of the happy life remains at about the level where Greek philosophers left it” (36).
It surprised me then, as much as it may surprise you now. After all, it seems that we’re “happinessed to death” already. Everywhere one turns — in books, in popular magazines, on television talk-shows — you find someone talking about happiness. And this constant preoccupation with happiness in today’s popular media is nothing peculiar to our times. Throughout history, novelists, philosophers, theologians, poets, playwrights — and yes, even psychologists — have expounded, at length, about happiness. Was it possible that all this talk was armchair speculation? Was none of it based on research facts? Sadly, the answer was yes.
Only since the late 1960’s has the topic of happiness moved form fireside speculation into the research laboratory. Psychology has, only recently, come to commit itself to a true research understanding of the nature and caused of happiness — an understanding based, not on philosophical conjecture, but rather, based solidly upon the results of scientific study and experimentation. The “Psychology of Happiness” is relatively new, historically speaking. So new, in fact, that the findings about happiness have yet to receive any wide attention among psychologists themselves, much less, the general public.