Ruut Veenhoven: What the hell is happiness?


When used in a broad sense, the word happiness is synonymous with ‘quality of life’ or ‘well-being’. In this meaning happiness denotes that a life is good, but does not specify what is good about that life. The word ‘happiness’ is also used in more specific ways, and these meanings can be clarified with the help of the classification of qualities of life.

There is a difference between chances for a good life and actual outcomes of life. There is a distinction between external and internal qualities. Together, these two dichotomies mark four qualities of life, all of which have been denoted by the word ‘happiness’.

Livability of the environment

It denotes good living conditions. Often the terms ‘quality-of-life’ and ‘wellbeing’ are used interchangeably for this particular meaning, especially in the writings of ecologists and sociologists. Economists sometimes use the term ‘welfare’ to denote this meaning. ‘Livability’ is a better word, because it refers explicitly to a characteristic of the environment. Politicians and social reformers typically stress this quality of life.

Life-ability of the person

The right top quadrant denotes inner life-chances. That is: how well we are equipped to cope with the problems of life. This aspect of the good life is also known by different names. In biology the phenomenon is referred to as ‘adaptive potential’. On other occasions it is denoted by the medical term ‘health’. Sen (1992) calls this quality of life variant ‘capability’. I prefer the simple term ‘life-ability’, which contrasts elegantly with ‘livability’. This quality of life is central in the thinking of therapists and educators.

Usefulness of life

The notion that a good life must be good for something more than itself. This presumes some higher value, such as ecological preservation or cultural development. In fact, there is a myriad of values on which the usefulness of a life can be judged. Moral advisors, such as your pastor, emphasize this quality of life.

Satisfaction with life

The inner outcomes of life. That is the quality of a life in the eye of the beholder. As we deal with conscious humans this quality boils down to subjective appreciation of life. This is commonly referred to using terms such as ‘subjective wellbeing’, ‘life-satisfaction’ and ‘happiness’ in a limited sense of the word. This is the kind of happiness I deal with in this paper.


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