Informed Pursuit of Happiness: What we should know, do know and can get to know


The rational pursuit of happiness requires knowledge of happiness and in particular answers to the following four questions: (1) Is greater happiness realistically possible? (2) If so, to what extent is that in our own hands? (3) How can we get happier? What things should be considered in the choices we make? (4) How does the pursuit of happiness fit with other things we value? Answers to these questions are not only sought by individuals who want to improve their personal life, they are also on the mind of managers concerned about the happiness of members of their organization and of governments aiming to promote greater happiness of a greater number of citizens. All these actors might make more informed choices if they could draw on a sound base of evidence. In this paper I take stock of the available evidence and the answers it holds for the four types of questions asked by the three kinds of actors. To do this, I use a large collection of research findings on happiness gathered in the World Database of Happiness, which serves as an online supplement to this paper. The data provide good answers to the questions 1 and 2, but fall short on the questions 3 and 4. Priorities for further research are indicated.

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  1. 1.

    Interest in happiness is also fuelled by social counter movements that revere ‘alternative’ ways of life and social organization, such as 19th century romanticism that projected happiness in pastoral life and 20th century New Age that sees happiness in exotic spirituality. In this tradition, the word ‘happiness’ is used for rhetorical purposes in the first place and denotes something missing in current life but available in the advocated life. Since the way to greater happiness is already given in this line of thought, there is little interest in empirical research on that matter.

  2. 2.

    To date (March 2014) the collection of distributional findings in nations is almost complete. The collection of correlational findings is fairly complete up to the year 2000, but a lot of findings published since are still waiting to be entered.

  3. 3.

    An overview of the literature about possible distortions in responses to questions about happiness is available in the Bibliography of Happiness (Veenhoven 2013a), section ‘Measurability of happiness’, subject code Ca.

  4. 4.

    World Database of Happiness, Findings on Happiness and Age, A4.2 Age in years.

  5. 5.

    Literature on happiness in care homes is gathered in the Bibliography of Happiness (Veenhoven 2013a), subject section ‘Institutional living’, code Hf03.02.

  6. 6.

    World Database of Happiness, Bibliography, Aj02.01 Follow-up studies.

  7. 7.

    World Database of Happiness, Findings on Change in Happiness, H5.2.2 Actual changes in happiness.

  8. 8.

    World Database of Happiness, Findings on Happiness and Age. A4.2 Age in years.

  9. 9.

    World Database of Happiness, Findings on Happiness Career, H5.1.1 Retrospective happiness.

  10. 10. The HappinessIndicator is a joint project of Erasmus University and VGZ health insurance company. The original Dutch version is available at

  11. 11.

    These self reports are strictly confidential.

  12. 12.

    World Database of Happiness, Findings on Happiness and Happiness of Siblings, F1.6.2.4 Happiness of siblings.

  13. 13.

    World Database of Happiness, Findings on happiness and Personality, P4.3 Active and P4.58 inner control.

  14. 14.

    World Database of Happiness, Happiness in Publics.

  15. 15. The HappinessIndicator is a joint project of Erasmus University and VGZ health insurance company. The original Dutch version is available at

  16. 16.

    World Database of Happiness, Bibliography of Happiness, Subject section Q Consequences of Happiness.

  17. 17.

    World Database of Happiness, Happiness in Nations, Ranks Average Happiness in Nations, Trends Average Happiness in nations.

  18. 18.

    World Database of Happiness, Findings on Happiness and Conditions in Nation.

  19. 19.

    World Database of Happiness, Findings on Happiness and Retirement, R3.1.2 Change in retirement status.

  20. 20.

  21. 21. Dutch version:


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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ruut Veenhoven.

Additional information

An earlier version of this paper was published as EHERO white paper 2011/1 entitled ‘Evidence-based pursuit of happiness’.



Key to summary markers in Tables 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.


Very positive




Mixed findings, both positive and negative





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Veenhoven, R. Informed Pursuit of Happiness: What we should know, do know and can get to know. J Happiness Stud 16, 1035–1071 (2015).

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  • Happiness
  • Life-satisfaction
  • Subjective wellbeing
  • Research synthesis
  • Applied utilitarianism
  • State of the art