Classical topics, modern answers, blind spots

Ruut Veenhoven
in : F. Strack, M Argyle, & N. Schwarz (eds) 'Subjective wellbeing, an interdisciplinary perspective', Pergamon Press, 1991, London, pp 7-26 . Full book available at

Happiness is a longstanding theme in Western thought. It came under scrutiny in the following three periods: (1) Antique Greek philosophy; (2) Post-Enlightenment West-European moral philosophy, Utilitarianism in particular; and (3) Current Quality-of-Life research in the rich welfare states. Printed reflections on all this contemplation now fill a hundred meters of bookshelves.
This paper takes stock of the progress made on seven classical topics. Are we now any wiser? Or is Dodge (1930) right in his contention that "the theory of the happy life has remained on about the same level that the ancient Greeks left it"? This inventory will differ from the usual review articles. The focus will not be on current technical research issues, but rather on the broader questions that prompted the enquiry. Furthermore, the aim is not only to enumerate advances in understanding, but also to mark the blind spots.

The following issues will be considered:
1) What is happiness?
2) Can happiness be measured?
3) Is unhappiness the rule?
4) How do people assess their happiness?
5) What conditions favour happiness?
6) Can happiness be promoted?
7) Should happiness be promoted?

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