“Love” is a real thing. “Happiness” is a lot vaguer. by mattsteinglass
July 19, 2008, 1:27 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Will Wilkinson blogs on another article about how recent studies indicate children don’t make people happier, and Megan McArdle says she doesn’t know why Wilkinson finds this surprising. My response is that I’m not really sure what researchers are talking about when they talk about “happiness”, and I’m not sure it corresponds to the popular-media understanding of the term; it’s a very thick concept and it means different things in different contexts, particular in different time-frames. I know what “I’m feeling happy right now” means, it means something like “elated”. And I know what “I’m happy I became a writer rather than a chemist” means, but I don’t think it means I’m necessarily feeling elated at that moment. I don’t think the idea of feeling generally happier over a period of one’s entire lifetime has very much meaning at all. What are we measuring here? The number of minutes during which we felt elated?

In Germanic languages, “happy” derives from “lucky”. In English, from “hap” — see “perhaps,” “happenstance”. In Dutch it’s “gelukkig”, and “luck” and “happiness” are both translated as “geluk”. In Russian, too — “schastlivii” means both “happy” and “lucky”. In Vietnamese the words are separate but often uttered in a single idiomatic breath — “hanh phuc may man”, “happy and lucky”; and “bat hanh” means “unhappy” and “unlucky”. I am not sure why scientific research into whether having children makes you happier makes more sense than scientific research into whether having children means you are luckier. Both of those terms are so heavy with social valuations that to a large extent you’re simply researching the degree to which a society values the having of children.

And, of course, there’s a point others have raised, including Megan, which is that for people who do have children, a life without them is a much poorer life. Deaf people are surely no less happy than hearing people, but hearing people who see deaf people rejecting cochlear implants feel they are something close to insane. (On the other hand, I’m sure there are people who’ve taken LSD who think I’m nuts for always having turned the stuff down.)


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Matt, I think you might enjoy my analysis of the conceptual problems of happiness research in the first half of my Cato paper. Specifically about meaning and translation, you’ll probably like this from linguist Anna Wierzbicka.

Comment by Will Wilkinson

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