May 30, 2014

Clap along Sociologists, Get Happy!

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

I feel like I’ve been hearing a lot about happiness lately. I’m not just talking about listening to the worldwide hit “Happy” by Pharrell Williams—which I hear playing somewhere at least once a week. What I’m alluding to are the books, articles, and commentaries on how we can be happier in our daily lives. It seems as if every year another book comes out and every week an article circulates around social media advising us on what we can do to achieve a higher state of contentment.

What I find particularly intriguing about much of the work that is being done on happiness is that most of it is not carried out by sociologists. Instead, happiness studies are dominated by journalists, psychologists, and economists. Consider, for example, some of the best-selling books of the past few years.  Stumbling on Happiness was written by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology, whereas The Geography of Bliss and The Happiness Project were both written by journalists (Eric Weiner and Gretchen Rubin, respectively).  

Sociologists are largely missing from the conversation when it comes to analyzing and advising on 

the topic of happiness. This absence is not only evident in the popular press. Even when it comes to more rigorous academic research on happiness, sociology lags behind other fields in the social sciences. Within psychology there is a well-established sub-discipline called positive psychology and in economics there are those who study social welfare or well-being which is sometimes referred to as “happiness economics.”

What is so ironic about sociologists not contributing to this burgeoning field of happiness studies is that many of the ideas that are coming out this research are inherently sociological. For example, a recent article in Science, the official journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and one of the most respected scientific journals in the world, reported on a study that linked happiness to antipoverty efforts.  The article, “Neighborhood Effects on the Long-Term Well-Being of Low-Income Adults,” found that when individuals were able to move from high poverty to low poverty areas, they experienced an increase in their physical and mental well-being even though they did not necessarily increase their economic standing. In other words, a change in social location made people happier even if it didn’t make them wealthier.

Although none of the seven authors who contributed to this article work in sociology departments, the results should not be too surprising to anyone who has ever studied sociology. One of the bedrock principles of the sociological perspective is that context matters. Who we are, what we do, and even how we feel, are all influenced heavily by our social location, our positionality, and our historical circumstances.

Even if it is a basic sociological proposition that our state of mind and our personal sense of well-being are intimately connected to our social experiences, many sociologists have ignored this premise in their scholarly pursuits. One might expect “the sociology of happiness” or “the sociology of well-being” to be well-established sub-fields of the discipline; sadly, or unhappily, this is not the case. As sociologists we spend considerably more time explaining how our personal troubles stem from larger social issues than we do studying how our personal contentment also stems from larger social issues.

What is even more perplexing about the lack of sociological attention toward happiness is that the theoretical underpinnings for such an investigation can be found in the works of some of our discipline’s founding figures.

Emile Durkheim is the most logical place to begin studying the sociology of happiness with his book, Suicide. In this groundbreaking work, Durkheim argued that suicide should be seen as an outgrowth of social factors such as societal and group integration, moral deregulation, and excessive social control. Instead of attempting to pinpoint the personal antecedents to suicide, Durkheim, in true sociological fashion, zeroed in on the macro-level conditions as the preconditions to one’s happiness.

Karl Marx, although not often seen as a social psychologist, could also help us understand why some people are not feeling so happy. Marx’s discussion of alienation, which is just as valid today as it was in the nineteenth century when he wrote it, details the various ways in which our relationship to our work makes us feel disconnected and dissatisfied. Find one person who hates their job and one person who loves their job and you will quickly understand Marx’s potential contribution to the sociology of happiness.

Finally, we can point to Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”  This classic feminist tale tells of a woman who is prescribed “rest cure” for her unhappiness by her doctor/husband and is then subsequently confined to a room with yellow wallpaper. As another early sociological treatise on happiness, Gilman’s story details how one’s personal contentment is intricately linked to one’s social conditions—in this case, to women’s lack of autonomy and social stimulation.

If the work of these theorists is not enough to encourage more sociologists to start studying happiness then here is one more reason: the contributions of the discipline are limited if we only focus on societal ills. Although sociologists fill a crucial role by documenting and analyzing the widespread occurrence of social injustice and social inequality, the sociological imagination can also help us better understand what social practices help individuals to live fulfilling and productive lives.

So instead of allowing psychologists and economists to talk about happiness using social indicators, sociologists should join in the conversation. Why should we leave it up to other disciplines to use sociological variables to explain personal outcomes? If sociology is well-suited to telling us what makes people happy, we should not shy away from pursuing this field of study. In short, sociologists should follow the advice of Pharrell Williams and “clap along, if you know what happiness is to you.” 


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I think this is very interesting. Sociologists really should start to involve themselves and indulge in the conversation of happiness and how it is caused socially. Happiness can come from a range of things I believe. People's social life, their job, their income, everything can really affect people's happiness. Sociologists just take a much different approach than psychologists and other people studiers, so I think it would really be a benefit to science if sociologists joined the discission.

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