If we ask what makes us happy, one obvious response might be ‘it depends on what you mean by happiness”. In our edited book on Regimes of Happiness (Contreras-Vejar, Jen and Turner, 2019), we approached the problem by talking about ‘regimes of happiness’, namely clusters of ideas that shaped understanding of happiness or well-being in different periods and in different cultures. For example in the ancient world, Aristotle, writing some 400 years before the birth of Christ, talked about Eudaimonia or flourishing or wellbeing. This idea has been casually translated as ‘happiness’. Aristotle argued that, while happiness was commonly associated with wealth and honour, he thought that living a virtuous life was the ultimate ground for flourishing. He also used Eudaimonia to describe a flourishing state and so for Aristotle a successful polity was one major condition for flourishing citizens. He didn’t think the gods had much to do with this state of affairs but his theory had two aspects that remain controversial. A virtuous life was connected with the idea of virility (virtu) or reaching a state of excellence and self-control or self-sufficiency (autarchy). What he called ‘natural slaves’ and women were excluded.
Aristotle’s philosophy, unlike Plato’s, was materialistic. Sex and food are clearly connected to human flourishing. The so-called Abrahamic religions have different happiness traditions. In the Jewish tradition, there are two views of happiness. In Deuteronomy, Jews are commanded to be joyous at their festivals – for God’s sake. But in Numbers they are commanded to enjoy eating and drinking for the sake of humans. Two philosophers who wrote on happiness – al-Kindi and al-Farabi – were influenced by translations from Greek sources, especially Aristotle and Plato. Al-Kindi (circa 800-870) wrote On the Means of Dispelling Sorrow claiming that material goods were a distraction from true happiness which required both reason and gratefulness. Aristotle’s ideas were very influential in the work of al-Farabi who also wrote extensively on happiness and what he called ‘the virtuous city’. For al-Farabi, one of the Baghdad Peripatetics who died around 950 in Damascus, in On the Attainment of Happiness argued that happiness was of this world and required the practical pursuit of reason within a well ordered city. These Greek and Islamicate traditions were very different from Christianity. Augustine developed the idea of Felicitas to describe happiness outside or beyond our earthly existence. The Protestant Reformation is hardly ever associated with the quest for personal happiness. For example, the famous German sociologists Max Weber in two essays on the Protestant Ethic painted a bleak picture of the life and anxieties regarding salvation among Calvinists , but we have to keep in mind that Luther was married and therefore broke with the monastic views on happiness (often described in terms of beatitudo).
With the rise of modern society, happiness is increasingly seen in secular terms. Perhaps the most important inclusion of happiness into constitutional theory and institutions occurred when Jefferson framed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 as ‘Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’ thereby replacing Locke’s ‘property’ with ‘happiness’. Much of nineteenth century philosophy was dominated by utilitarianism. For Bentham and his associates the proper aim of government was the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Bentham invented a ‘felicific calculus’ to measure happiness in terms of intensity and duration, but it was Mill who rejected these quantitative measures, arguing that liberty was the principal basis for an enjoyable life. However, by the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century we find leading intellectuals -Nietzsche, Croce, Weber, and Freud- arguing that happiness was no longer available to them and that the masses had sunk into a life of animal pleasures.
In the second half of the twentieth century, research on and discussions of happiness became all pervasive. Happiness studies, journals and research centres enjoyed rapid growth, and many governments began to adopt the measurement of happiness as an alternative to the measurement of GDP or a supplement to it. To a large extent, research on happiness has been dominated by economists and psychologists. Economists have, among other interests, looked at the connections between wealth (or more specifically income) and individual satisfaction, and they have re-discovered the relevance of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) to questions of well-being. The only consistent outcome of economic research has been that health and wealth are key variables. While psychologists have improved the methodology of research on happiness, their findings are often counter-intuitive such as the U-shape of happiness in which in late life satisfaction increases.
Are religious people in modern society more happy or more successful than secular people? Unfortunately the sociological and psychological evidence provides no unambiguous or consistent findings. Research on social capital in the United States found that religiosity correlates well with life satisfaction or happiness, but these findings might be explained by the social relationships that are supported by church activities and communal bonds. For example families that pray together stay together and that bonding rather than faith specifically supports happiness. In psychological research, those investigations using the Oxford Happiness Inventory found religiosity to be consistently associated with happiness, whereas the Depression-Happiness Scale consistently found no association. Despite the methodological sophistication, some psychologists such as Michael Argyle, have concluded that, from a psychological point of view, we have no coherent theory of happiness. From the perspective of religious studies, we might also add that it would be important to distinguish between different religious traditions. At present the Pew Foundation has a large research project on the topic and may offer findings that are more sensitive both to theory and to religious diversity.
Bryan S. Turner is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for Religion Politics and Society at the Australian Catholic University. His principal interests are in social theory, the sociology of religion and citizenship studies. His first publication was Weber and Islam (1974) and he recently edited the Blackwell Wiley Encyclopedia for Social Theory (2018). He is the founding editor of the Journal of Classical Sociology and the Editor for the Routledge Religion in Contemporary Asia Series. He was awarded a Doctor of Letters by Cambridge University in 2009 and received the Max Planck Award in social science in 2015