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Happiness: Do we have a choice?

28 Jan 2011 | Scienceline

Ludwig Wittgenstein, a famous 20th century philosopher, was miserable all his life. Depressed and anxious, he once wrote in his diary, "There is no happiness for me; no joy ever." Yet minutes before he died, he muttered: "Tell them I've had a wonderful life."

The concept of happiness is universally understood, yet escapes all comprehension. Can someone really be both unhappy everyday and happy over a lifetime? Does the notion of happiness change throughout the world, between communities, between people? Most importantly, do we have any choice in the matter?

Recent research in psychology, economics and public policy may help unravel this tangled knot of questions.

"Objective choices make a difference to happiness over and above genetics and personality," said Bruce Headey, a psychologist at Melbourne University in Australia. Headey and his colleagues analyzed annual self-reports of life satisfaction from over 20,000 Germans who have been interviewed every year since 1984. He compared five-year averages of people's reported life satisfaction, and plotted their relative happiness on a percentile scale from 1 to 100. Heady found that as time went on, more and more people recorded substantial changes in their life satisfaction. By 2008, more than a third had moved up or down on the happiness scale by at least 25 percent, compared to where they had started in 1984.

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