Skip to main content

What Do Happiness Studies Study?


What do, or should, happiness studies study? Everything to which we refer with the word ‘‘happiness’’ is worth some study. But the study of subjective states covers only part of the ground covered by the word ‘‘happiness’’ and by no means all the ground central to understanding happiness. On the central use of ‘‘happiness,’’ to be happy is to be glad or satisfied or content, which suggests subjectivity, with having a good measure of what is important in life, which suggests objectivity. We find the same suggestion of both subjectivity and objectivity in the list of what enhances the quality of life. There are strong arguments in favour both of the subjectivity of what enhances life and of its objectivity. I argue that neither is right, that the story is more complicated. The conclusion of the story is that there is a list of several non-reducible features that contribute to the quality of a characteristic human life, and that anything that contributes to the quality of any human life will be one or other of these features. But there is a problem. When we speak of the quality of a human life, there may be no one thing we have in mind. Perhaps some of us are not disagreeing with one another over the nature of a ‘‘happy’’ life but speaking of different things.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  • Aristotle: 1094b, Nicomachean Ethics (many editions)

  • Chang, R.: 2004, ‘All Things Considered’, Philosophical Perspectives 18, pp.␣1–22

    Google Scholar 

  • Craig, E. (ed.): 1998, The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Routledge, London)

  • Eatwell J. et al.: 1987, The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics Macmillan London

    Google Scholar 

  • Griffin J. 1986, Well-Being Clarendon Press Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Griffin J. 1996, Value Judgement Clarendon Press Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Hume, D.: Essays (many editions)

  • McDowell J. 1981, Non-cognitivism and rule-following In: S. Holtzman, C. Leich (eds) Wittgenstein: To Follow a Rule Routledge London

    Google Scholar 

  • Rawls J. 1972, A Theory of Justice Clarendon Press Oxford

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to James Griffin.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Griffin, J. What Do Happiness Studies Study?. J Happiness Stud 8, 139–148 (2007).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • happiness
  • incommensurability
  • incomparability
  • objectivity/subjectivity of values
  • univocity of ‘‘happiness’’