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- What is well-being research?
- How does "well-being research" relate to other fields like positive psychology?
- What can philosophy contribute to the study of happiness and well-being?
- What can theology and religious studies contribute to the study of happiness and well-being?
- Why is well-being research important?
- Why study happiness and well-being instead of suffering and other problems?
- Are happiness and well-being just issues for affluent, individualistic Westerners?
- Happiness does not seem like something you can quantify. Can there be a science of it?
- Is it possible to measure subjective experience?
- Is this research reliable?
- Do people overstate how happy they are? If so, how can the measures be reliable?
- Should we trust this research given reports of replication failures?
1. What is well-being research?
We need not define it precisely, but roughly, well-being research includes any research concerned with happiness, well-being, flourishing and the like, at least insofar as it focuses on quality of life. Well-being research is diverse, spanning many fields and approaches including mental health research, economics, development, urban planning, social work, medicine, and so on. Importantly, this field examines both positive and negative aspects of quality of life, and is not limited to just the psychological aspects of the good life.
2. How does “well-being research” relate to other fields like positive psychology?
We are using ‘well-being research’ as a convenient and fairly neutral label for this broad family of studies. But at the moment, there is no standardly accepted label for the field, and ‘well-being studies’ might be an equally suitable term. ‘Happiness studies’ is close in meaning, but the term ‘happiness’ is subject to greater controversy, and the journal that introduced the term focuses more specifically on mental states of subjective well-being. ‘Quality of life studies’ is also closely related and might serve just as well, but the term ‘quality of life’ is perhaps more often used in healthcare contexts, and ‘well-being’ has become more standard among researchers in this area. Various other terms have also been proposed, but none has gained wide currency.
One of the largest threads of well-being research is positive psychology, which emphasizes strengths and other positive states, in response to a historical tendency to focus on pathology and misery. ‘Hedonic psychology’ graced the title of a major collection of papers on the psychology of well-being—primarily subjective well-being—in 1999. But that term has not gained wide acceptance, perhaps because ‘hedonic’ may connote a narrow focus on pleasure.
3. What can philosophy contribute to the study of happiness and well-being?
Philosophy addresses some of the most fundamental questions in well-being research: what ultimately matters in life? What is happiness? How should we go about pursuing it, if at all? What distinguishes good science from bad? On some of the oldest questions, philosophers notoriously disagree; for instance, there is no expert consensus about what the right theories of happiness or well-being are. This means that we cannot simply assume any such theory as if were obviously correct, as many of the experts on the matter will disagree with us. But philosophers also agree on a great deal, and in practice the different theories usually give similar verdicts. As well, philosophy can help improve our views even when it doesn't give us the answers: ordinary thinking about the good life is often simplistic or deeply confused. Reasonable people will come to different views about how best to live. But philosophical reflection enables us to think more clearly and intelligently about such matters.
4. What can theology and religious studies contribute to the study of happiness and well-being?
Crudely, we might say that theology approaches religion “from the inside,” taking up the intellectual and spiritual questions that arise within a religious tradition. Religious studies, again very crudely, tends to study religion from a more external standpoint, and can involve scholars from a wide range of disciplines. For members of a religious tradition, theology and religious studies (TRS) play a crucial role in addressing their distinctive concerns about the good life.
But even nonbelievers have much to learn from these fields. For starters, religion plays a central role in billions of people’s lives, and perhaps most thinking about well-being occurs within religious traditions. It would be impossible to fully understand human well-being, particularly as it is understood and experienced across diverse cultures, without attending to religious perspectives.
As well, religious traditions can teach us a great deal about human sensibilities: what ways of thinking about the good life have tended to resonate most strongly with people? What sorts of practices, and what ways of living, have people around the world found most compelling and fulfilling? The major religions have inspired tremendous devotion around the world, evolving in response to local conditions yet also offering strong threads of continuity across millennia. A number of religions have provided much of the shared cultural framework of entire societies, uniting otherwise diverse populations. Understanding how religions have met human longings and needs can teach us a great deal about human nature. And engaging with religious texts and communities can be enlightening whatever one’s religious commitments, or lack thereof: one need not be a Buddhist, or a Catholic, or a Sunni, to find inspiration in these wisdom traditions.
Perhaps one does not believe in any deity; still, one might see something illuminating about, for example, theistic ideas of human flourishing as a kind of union with God. Scientists sometimes draw on similar metaphors in describing their aspiration to understand the ultimate nature of reality. Others, also impressed by the power of such imagery, might be led to reflect on the centrality of relationships, of love, in human life. The arts regularly employ scriptural references that one does not need to be a believer to appreciate. Even when their meaning is not fully apparent—indeed, perhaps especially then—they can move us to reflect on what it is that grips us, drawing out unconscious meanings and enriching our lives.
In general, religious and spiritual traditions approach questions about the good life from a very different direction than academic inquiries in philosophy or the sciences. While the latter approaches benefit from attention to the rigorous vetting of ideas, they can also, for the same reason, be a little dry, or ill-suited to speak to certain concerns that are not easily addressed with scientific or philosophical precision. Accordingly, even many non-believers find it rewarding to engage with religious thought, which can draw on a different array of tools, including poetry and storytelling among others.
Finally, the mere fact that religious traditions play a crucial role in so many people’s lives makes it necessary for the study of well-being to attend to them. And in policy settings, it is important to take people’s values and outlooks seriously, including their religious commitments.
5. Why is well-being research important?
To put it into perspective, consider that the U.S. spends upwards of $100 billion a year on medical research. This in turn matters because it contributes to happiness and well-being. This project aims to help improve our understanding of the bigger picture: the things that make life worth living, and which we have not always wisely pursued. Indeed, perhaps few subjects are more crucial to understanding the world, and our place in it, than understanding what it means for human beings to flourish. Such knowledge is especially important in the 21st century, as a growing population and pressures on the environment make it essential that we find efficient ways to secure a good quality of life.
6. Why study happiness and well-being instead of suffering and other problems?
Our concern is with unhappiness and ill-being as much as with the positives. Just as health care research isn’t purely about healthy people, happiness research isn’t just about happy people, and well-being research isn’t simply concerned with thriving people, or with states of bliss.
7. Are happiness and well-being just issues for affluent, individualistic Westerners?
Well-being research concerns issues of interest to everyone. For instance, some poor populations are much happier than others. If we are concerned about poverty, we should especially care about ameliorating the kinds of poverty that cause the greatest stress and misery. Human thinking about happiness and well-being is extremely diverse. But people everywhere care about the quality of their lives, and few want to pass their lives in unhappiness. Rich or poor, people want more out of life than simply to survive.
8. Happiness does not seem like something you can quantify. Can there be a science of it?
Compare: health can’t be summed up in a number, yet that doesn’t prevent us from spending vast sums on medical research and other facets of the health sciences. Well-being research need not involve boiling happiness or well-being down to a single quantity, and most of it focuses on various aspects of well-being: the quality of our relationships, engagement at work, enjoyment of daily activities, satisfaction with life, levels of stress, and so forth. These matters can be studied scientifically, just as human health can.
9. Is it possible to measure subjective experience?
Happiness and related states have far-reaching impacts on people’s minds, bodies, and behavior: they leave many traces that we can measure, even if we can’t know precisely what a person is feeling at a moment. For instance, consider a group of people who report feeling stressed out in a long questionnaire, have high cortisol and blood pressure levels, report stomach pain and difficulty sleeping, are said to be stressed out by their friends, and so on. We have good reason to think they are in fact more stressed than another group showing all the signs of being relaxed and unworried. We don't need to know exactly what any one of them is feeling to know that, in one respect, the first group is less happy than the second.
10. Is this research reliable?
Yes, with qualifications. Looking at different factors like facial expressions, gestures, stress hormones, brain imaging, the testimony of friends, life outcomes like workplace success and longevity, and self-reported feelings, we can verify that our measures are giving reasonably reliable, if imperfect, information about how people are doing. For example: by all indications, people who score badly on a depression questionnaire tend to feel a lot worse than those who score well. And unemployed people tend to report lower happiness and life satisfaction than the employed, just as we would expect. So a large body of converging findings indcates that, for the most part, the measures are giving us good information. There are of course limitations, as with measurement in any science, and one goal of this project is to help address some of those limitations.
11. Do people overstate how happy they are? If so, how can the measures be reliable?
Answers to general questions about how happy or satisfied individuals are may indeed tend to be overstated. If so, then such measures might be like a good thermometer with incorrect labeling. The thermometer might reliably tell you it’s much hotter in Texas than Toronto, even if it always reads ten degrees too high. We care more about getting relative well-being levels right: are poor people less happy than the rich? Etc. Even if a study finds everyone claiming to be happy, it is still useful to know that the poor people are a lot lower on the scale. A second point is that much research doesn't rely on broad questions that lend themselves to overstatement. For example, a study might assess stress hormones, or ask narrow questions like, “Did you worry [smile, etc.] during a lot of the day yesterday?”
12. Should we trust this research given reports of replication failures?
Replication failures are an important part of healthy scientific practice; in many cases they reveal, not flaws in the original research, but inadequacies in our understanding of the results: maybe the phenomenon is more complicated than we thought. Here is a nice discussion of the current situation in psychology. Many findings in well-being research have been corroborated through multiple studies using varied methods. In general, it is wise to treat any single scientific study as a provisional result--suggestive, but not conclusive--and look for trends across multiple studies. Our measures do have limitations and must be interpreted with caution. But they are telling us a lot about human well-being, and will continue to improve.