Social Indicators Research

, Volume 20, Issue 4, pp 333–354 | Cite as

The utility of happiness

  • Ruut Veenhoven


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.


  1. AdermannD. Elation: 1972, ‘Depression and helping behavior’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 24, 91–101.Google Scholar
  2. AlloyL. B. and AbrahamsonL. Y.: 1979, ‘Judgement of contingency in depressed and non-depressed students. Sadder but wiser?’, Journal of Experimental Psychology 168, 441–485.Google Scholar
  3. BellP.: 1978, ‘Affective state, attraction, and affiliation: Misery loves happy company too’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4, 616–619.Google Scholar
  4. BelskyJ.: 1984, ‘The determinants of parenting — a process model’, Child Development 55, 83–96.Google Scholar
  5. Bond, J. B.: 1983, A non-medical approach to the prediction of distance from death’, Paper presented at the 7th ann. meeting of the Canadian Ass. of Gerontology Moncton.Google Scholar
  6. BorgattaE. F.: 1961, ‘Mood, personality and interaction’, Journal of General Psychology, 64, 105–137.Google Scholar
  7. BotwinnickJ., WestR., and StorandtM.: 1978, Predicting death from behavioral test performance, Journal of Gerontology 33, 755–762.Google Scholar
  8. BowerG. H.: 1981, ‘Mood and memory’, American Psychologist 36, 129–148.Google Scholar
  9. BrennerB.: 1979, ‘Depressed affect as a cause of associated somatic problems’, Psychological Medicine 9, 737–746.Google Scholar
  10. BryantB. K.: 1983, ‘Context of success: Affective aroused generosity’, American Educational Research Journal 20, 553–562.Google Scholar
  11. BuchwaldA. M.: 1977, ‘Depressive mood and estimates of reinforcement frequency’, Journal of Abnormal Psychology 86, 443–446.Google Scholar
  12. Clark, J. C. V.: 1977, ‘Outcome and adjustment in untreated mild depression’, Unpubl. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oregon.Google Scholar
  13. Cohn, J. and Tronick, E.: 1983, ‘Three-month-old infants’ reaction to simulated maternal depression’, Child Development 54, no. 1.Google Scholar
  14. Coyne, J.: 1982, ‘Shunning the depressed’, Psychology Today, March, 80–81.Google Scholar
  15. CrnicV. A., GreenbergM. T., RagezinZ. S., RobinsonN. M., and BoshamR. B.: 1983, ‘Effects of stress and social support on mothers and premature and full term infants’, Child Development 54, 209–217.Google Scholar
  16. DeegD.: 1987, ‘En ze leefden nog lang en gelukkig: Satisfactie als predictor voor overlevingsduur bij bejaarden’, Gezondheid en Samenleving 7, 98–107.Google Scholar
  17. Dosch, M. F.: 1979, ‘Child abuse: A comparison of physical abuses, sexual abuses and non-abuses on perceived locus of control, self acceptance and avowed happiness’, Unpubl. Ph.D. diss. University of Oregon, U.S.A.Google Scholar
  18. DouganC. and WelchL.: 1948, ‘A study of elation, making use of the Rorschach test and associated tests’, Journal of Psychology 20, 363–366.Google Scholar
  19. Erbes, J. T. and Hedderson, J. J. C.: 1984, ‘A longitudinal examination of the separation/divorce process’, Journal of Marriage and the Family, Nov., 937–941.Google Scholar
  20. FisherV. E. and MarrowA. J.: 1934, ‘Experimental study of moods’, Character and Personality 2, 201–209.Google Scholar
  21. FlügelJ. C.: 1925, ‘A quantitative study of feeling emotion in everyday life’, British Journal of Psychology 15, 318–355.Google Scholar
  22. FriedmanH. S., RubinZ., JacobsonJ., and ClareG.: 1978, ‘Induced affect and attraction towards dating partners and opposite sex strangers’, Social Psychology 9, 57–63.Google Scholar
  23. FrommE.: 1939, ‘Selfishness and self-love’, Psychiatry 2, 507–523.Google Scholar
  24. FrommE.: 1962, The Art of Loving, Harper & Row, New York.Google Scholar
  25. Gatley, R. H.: 1969, ‘Happiness and affiliation’, Unpubl. paper. Mich. State Univers.Google Scholar
  26. GouauxC.: 1971, ‘Induced affective state and interpersonal attraction’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 20, 37–43.Google Scholar
  27. HaleW. D. and StricklandB. R.: 1976, ‘Induction of mood states and their effects on cognitive and social behaviors’, Consulting and Clinical Psychology 44, 153.Google Scholar
  28. HeadyB., HolmströmE., and WearingA.: 1984, ‘The impact of life events and changes in domain satisfactions on well-being’, Social Indicators Research 15, no. 3, 203–227.Google Scholar
  29. HenggelerS. W. and BorduinC. M.: 1981, ‘Satisfied working mothers and their preschool sons: Interaction and psycho-social adjustment’, Journal of Family Issues 2, 322–325.Google Scholar
  30. HerseyR. B.: 1932, Workers' Emotions in Shop and Home — A Study of Individual Workers from the Psychological and Physiological Standpoint, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, U.S.A.Google Scholar
  31. Hettema, C. M.: 1979, ‘Effects of mood on recall of pleasantly and unpleasantly rated scentences’, Unpubl. Ph.D. diss, Fordham Univers. U.S.A.Google Scholar
  32. HuxleyA.: 1932, Brave New World, Continental Book Co., Stockholm.Google Scholar
  33. IsenA. M. and LevinP. F.: 1972, ‘The effect of feeling on good-helping cookies and kindness’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 21, 384–388.Google Scholar
  34. Janoff-BulmanR. and MarshallG.: 1982, ‘Mortality, well-being and control’, Personality and Social Psychological bulletin 8, 691–698.Google Scholar
  35. JohnsonW. B.: 1937, ‘Euphoric and depressed moods in normal subjects I & II’, Journal of Character and Personality 6, 79–98.Google Scholar
  36. KaplanG. A. and CamandroT.: 1983, ‘Perceived health and mortality: A nine-year follow-up of the Human Population Laboratory Control’, American Journal of Epidemiology 117, 292–304.Google Scholar
  37. KendallP.: 1954, Conflict and Mood, The Free Press, Glencoe, Ill. U.S.A.Google Scholar
  38. Klandermans, B.: ‘Ongeluk maakt niet opstandig: De complexe relatie tussen ontevredenheid en protest’, in R. Veenhoven (ed.), The wages of satisfaction (in preparation).Google Scholar
  39. LehrN. M.: 1982, ‘Depression und Lebensqualität im Alter: Korrelate negativer und positiver Gestimmtheit’, Zeitschrift für gerontologie 15, 241–249.Google Scholar
  40. LehrU. and Schmitz-SchererR.: 1974, ‘Psycho-soziale Korrelate der Langlebigkeit’, Aktuelle Gerontologie 4, 261–268.Google Scholar
  41. Lehr, U., Schmits-Scherer, R., and Zimmerman, E.: 1983, Sozial-psychologische Korrelate der Langlebigkeit, Universität Bonn, Psychologisches Institut.Google Scholar
  42. LewinsohnP. M.: 1975, ‘The behavioral study and treatment of depression’, in M.Hersen, R. M.Eisler, and P. M.Miller (eds.), Progress in Behavior Modification, Vol. 1, Academic Press, New York, U.S.A.Google Scholar
  43. Looker, Y. B.: 1981, ‘Maternal mood and mother-child attachment behavior’, Unpubl. Ph.D. diss. Columbia University, U.S.A.Google Scholar
  44. LounsburyJ. W., SundstromE., and ShieldsM.: 1979, ‘The relationship of avowed life satisfaction to public acceptance of and expectations about a nuclear powerplant’, Journal of Community Psychology 7, 298–304.Google Scholar
  45. ManuciaG. K., BaumanD. J., and CialdiniR. B.: 1984, ‘Mood influences of helping: direct effects or side effects?’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 46, 357–364.Google Scholar
  46. MaslowA. H.: 1968, Towards a Psychology of Being, Nostrand, New York, U.S.A.Google Scholar
  47. MilbrathL. W. and GoelM. L.: 1977, Political Participation, Rand McNally College Publishing Company, Chicago, U.S.A.Google Scholar
  48. MillerD. and LiebermannM. A.: 1965, ‘The relationship of affect state and adaptive capacity to reaction to stress’, Journal of Gerontology 20, 492–497.Google Scholar
  49. NataleM.: 1977, ‘Effects of induced elation-depression on speech in initial interview’, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 45, 45–54.Google Scholar
  50. PalmoreE.: 1974, ‘Predicting longevity; A new method’, in PalmoreE. (ed.), Normal Aging II, Report from Duke longitudinal Studies 1970–1975, Duke University Press, Durham NC, U.S.A.Google Scholar
  51. PalmoreE. and ClevelandW.: 1976, ‘Aeging, terminal decline and terminal drop’, Journal of Gerontology 31, 76–81.Google Scholar
  52. RadloffR. and HelmreichR.: 1968, ‘Groups under stress: Psychological research in Sealab II’, Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, U.S.A.Google Scholar
  53. RoseA. M.: 1955, ‘Factors associated with the life satisfaction of middle-class, middle aged persons’, Marriage and Family Living 17, 15–19.Google Scholar
  54. RymanD. H., BiersnerR. J., and LaRoccoJ. M.: 1974, ‘Reliabilities and validities of the mood questionnaire’, Psychological Reports 35, 479–484.Google Scholar
  55. Sherman, L. K.: 1979, ‘The correlates of happiness in post-separation adjustment’, Unpubl. Ph.D. diss. University of Oregon, U.S.A.Google Scholar
  56. Spanier, G. B. and Fürstenberg, F. F.: 1982, ‘Remarriage after divorce: A longitudinal analysis of well-being’, Journal of Marriage and the Family, Aug., 709–720.Google Scholar
  57. Strickland, B. R. and Hale, W. D.: 1974, ‘Effect of induced mood states on activity and self reported affect,’ Paper presented at the 82th Am. Psych. Conv., New Orleans.Google Scholar
  58. Sullivan, E. T.: 1922, ‘Mood in relation to performance’, Archives of Psychology 8, nr. 53.Google Scholar
  59. Trimboli, F.: 1972, ‘Changes in voice characteristics as a function of trait and state personality variables’, Unpubl. diss. Ohio University.Google Scholar
  60. VeenhovenR.: 1984, ‘Conditions of Happiness’, Reidel Publ. Co., Dordrecht, The Netherlands.Google Scholar
  61. VeenhovenR.: 1987, ‘Alleen leven en geluk’ (Single living and happiness), Gedrag en Gezondheid 15, 107–117.Google Scholar
  62. Veenhoven, R. (ed.): in preparation, ‘The wages of satisfaction’.Google Scholar
  63. Verkley, H. and Stolk, A.: ‘De invloed van geluksgevoelens op werkloosheid’, in R. Veenhoven (ed.), ‘The wages of satisfaction’ (in preparation).Google Scholar
  64. WessmanA. E. and RicksD. T.: 1966, Mood and Personality, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York.Google Scholar
  65. Wessman, A. E., Ricks, D. F., and Tyl, M. M.: 1960, ‘Characteristics and concomittants of mood fluctuation in college women’, Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology, Jan., 117–126.Google Scholar
  66. ZuckermanD. M., KaslS. V., and OstfeldA. M.: 1984, ‘Psychological predictors of mortality among the elderly poor. The role of religion, well-being and social contacts’, American Journal of Epidemiology 119, 410–423.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ruut Veenhoven
    • 1
  1. 1.Social Sciences DepartmentErasmus UniversityRotterdamThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations