Social Indicators Research

, Volume 20, Issue 4, pp 333-354

First online:

The utility of happiness

  • Ruut VeenhovenAffiliated withSocial Sciences Department, Erasmus University

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The issue. Nineteenth century utilitarian philosophers considered happiness as the highest good (‘utility’ in their words) and claimed political priority for attempts to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number. In reaction, many of their contemporaries cried out that happiness is not good at all, because it turns people into ‘contented cows’ and undermines social bonds. Modern psychologists, however, tend to suggest positive effects: sharper awareness, more activity, better social functioning and better health.

Data. No empirical investigations have yet focussed on consequences of happiness. Nevertheless, indications can be found in various studies covering other matters. This paper gathers the available data. These data do not allow definite conclusions, but do suggest several small yet noteworthy effects. Enjoyment of life seems to broaden perception, to encourage active involvement and thereby to foster political participation. It facilitates social contacts: in particular contacts with spouse and children. Further, happiness buffers stress, thereby preserving health and lengthening life somewhat. There is no evidence of harmful effects. It is concluded that society is more likely to flourish with happy citizens than with unhappy ones.