argumentative essay on social culture regarding happiness

Argumentative Essay on Social Culture Regarding Happiness

Due to developments in scientific research, many of the things that people did not understand before have now become clearer to varying degrees.  Science has educated us about how things work, provided cures for diseases and prescribed ways to live a healthier life.  Science has influenced many of the physical aspects of life and the environment, and now it is attempting to find a scientific basis for the feeling that everybody seems to be wishing for, which is happiness.  

            In 2006, a group of UK scientists produced a happiness map based on research data on Subjective Well-being (SWB) that go back to the 1990s, including data regarding poverty, health, and education gathered by different international organizations.  These data, when put on the map, give a projection of places which have a higher SWB and which places do not.  The map seems to show a relationship between factors such as location, poverty, health, and education with SWB, and this is probably the purpose the scientists are looking for the map to serve.

Not surprisingly, there are those who oppose the map, and they seem to have some valid arguments as well.  The core of their opposition lies on the nature of happiness itself – attempts at measuring happiness is to assume that it is an objective entity that can be observed, identified, and defined.  To measure it means that it has dimensions that can be subjected to scientific inquiry, and characteristics that set it apart from all other human feelings, emotions, or state of mind.  By integrating happiness with geography, the researchers are basically stating that one’s level of happiness is related to where he or she lives and the conditions of those places.  The map also shows happiness’ correlations to ideology or forms of government.  For example, the US, which is a democracy, is color coded to be a happy area while Russia and China, which are communist countries, are color-coded as less happy areas.  Does it follow that because I live in the US I am happy, or at least I am generally happier than people in Russia and China?  I know for a fact that this cannot be true all the time, and certainly not true for all people in any of these areas.  If this is the case then, the global happiness map serve does not serve the purpose for which it is designed.

It is my view that the map is an exercise in futility.  When one weighs the possible benefits against the drawbacks that such a map can provide, and considering that the conclusion about happiness is based on data about SWB, then the map becomes invalid. It is argued that such a map has some scientific value, especially when it comes to studying the cultural aspects of a place so that a deeper understanding may be achieved.  On the other hand, and this I believe is a more valid argument, is that it may also have the detrimental effect that people will not bother to look beyond the map, and just rely on what is easily seen to make their generalizations (much the same way that many people cannot see beyond skin color or ethnicity).  As for the significance of the map as a tool for understanding other cultures, I am afraid that this purpose is not served by indicating whether the people in certain countries are happy or miserable.  The idea that a whole country is less happy than mine is makes me think that bad things must be happening in those countries on a regular basis, like disease, violence and corruption.  By giving a “happiness” score to any country dooms the less “happy” country to a status that is lower than the “happier” countries.  This is unfair, primarily because the scoring system is neither generally accepted nor universally available (as in positive psychology).  If the purpose of the map is to establish a geographical pattern of happiness, then it has failed.

The basic premise of the research wherein happiness is interchangeably used with SWB is also at the very least problematic.  Statistics can only go so far when it comes to subjective issues such as happiness, especially when one considers the methods employed by the researchers in studying happiness, their definition of happiness, and how it is measured.

Another concern is about the neutrality of the study:  the places where happiness research is most advanced are marked as the happiest places on earth.  Is this a coincidence or is the research biased in any way to favor the researchers’ places of origin, personal beliefs, economic agenda, or ideologies?  Strict correlations between  happiness, poverty, and ideology are already debunked by the finding that there are impoverished nations with high levels of SWB such as some Latin-American countries, but this aspect is seen as an exception to the rule, dubbed as the “Latino bonus” (Weiner 1).  To explain this, the researchers added another factor, which is relationships.  It is not a good research when findings are stretched or factors added arbitrarily because it will seem as though the researchers already have a conclusion in mind.

White’s article states that SWB is the “underlying state of happiness”.  There may be some truth to this, but the article does not provide any basis-in-fact, only the various factors used as measures of SWB, such as health, wealth, and education.  The article mentioned that happiness is dependent on the long-term situation of these factors.  Considering that all of them are fleeting and are hardly within one’s control, it is difficult to imagine a person being secure enough to be significantly happier than those who do not feel as secure.  The gauge that the researchers use is called a “Satisfaction with Life Scale” (Pavot and Diener in White 19).  Does this scale intend to say that satisfaction with life is equivalent to happiness, and that because one is satisfied with his or her health and other factors, that he or she is necessarily happy?  Can it really be said that there is a correlation between satisfaction with tangible things and happiness, and on the same line, can happiness be traced back to satisfaction?  Even if a correlation seems obvious, it does not indicate whether one causes the other.  The research takes it for granted that one may be dissatisfied with what wealth, education, or health he or she has because he or she is a naturally morose person to begin with.

It can also be safely said that satisfaction does not equal happiness.  This can be seen from the World Health Organization’s list of suicide rates from different countries in the world.  According to the list, suicide happens in the richest and poorest of countries, whether they are democratic or communist, or eastern or western countries.  The list does not show any proof that countries with high SWB have low suicide rates. (Although the list is not conclusive either way because suicides can be also be due to other mental problems and not just dissatisfaction.)

Questionable as well is the general purpose of the study.  The article (White 21) mentions a suspiciously commercial slant to the research, and its relationship with politics and economics in general.  While it is true that it has been the aim of nations to provide happiness for its citizens, this does not necessarily mean that they are able to do that.  Perhaps the most that governments can provide are material benefits like housing, education, pension and health care, but not happiness per se.  In return for these benefit the government expects the people to become productive members of the society (it is not without price), and in countries like the U.S., people have to work so hard in order to keep up with the government’s demands.  The pressure of taxes and cost of living are so high that even satisfaction, let alone happiness, is hard to come by.  Perhaps this is the function of positive psychology – to convince people that they are actually happy by showing them studies like the happiness research.  By showing them that the government gives them what it takes to be satisfied, and that they are on their way to happiness, makes it easier to demand more from them.

Another negative issue is the effect of positive psychology on SWB measurements.  Being a western concept, it is highly possible that positive psychology’s idea of happiness as based on SWB does not apply to all the countries of the world.  In eastern countries for example, spirituality may be a factor for determining satisfaction.  This is not mentioned in the research and may also be a reason why positive psychology is not seen so much in areas with low SWB, due to the differences in fundamental beliefs about happiness.  The accusation that positive psychology is “selling self-help to the worried well” (White 21) may actually be well founded.  Convincing the affluent that they need something means commercial success, because they can afford to buy it. If a person belongs to any of the countries with a high SWB and is not happy, then it will be easy to convince that person that he or she needs the help of positive psychology. The observation that areas with the highest SWB are the same areas with the greatest SWB research could mean that they, the positive psychologist, are selling their services and using these studies as evidence to promote themselves. It will not be easy to establish what the intentions of positive psychology are in relation to this research, but as the article states, “companies that offer positive psychology services are proliferating.” (White)

I believe that the research, if sincere, is a noble attempt.  Any research that looks for ways to improve human condition should be lauded.  But the researchers could do better by explicitly stating what they intend to find out and establish.  One’s standards for happiness may not necessarily be the same as another person’s, and because of this, nobody should dare measure other people’s happiness using one’s own standards and vice-versa.  Happiness and satisfaction are not interchangeable concepts or feelings, and there are far too many factors that determine happiness than can be measured by science.  It could also be that only one factor is enough to make people happy, while all the others only provide them with satisfaction.

I should also emphasize that caution should be taken when presented with research such as this one, because the results may be dangerously sensitive and could lead one to have an incorrect view of others and the world around us.

Works Cited

Weiner, Eric.  “Actually, happiness isn’t within.” Jan. 7, 2008. The Christian Science Monitor. 2008.

White, A. “A Global Projection of Subjective Well-being: A Challenge To Positive Psychology?”  Psychtalk 56, (2007):17-20.

World Health Organization. “Suicide Rates (per 100,000) by country, year, and gender. 2003.

"Looking for a Similar Assignment? Order now and Get a Discount!