The Sociology of Happiness and Contentment - An interview with Dr Jordan McKenzie by Stu Horsfield

Dr Jordan McKenzie is a lecturer in Sociology at The University of New England. His recent research involves the application of social theory in developing experience based interpretations of everyday life, and this can be found in his research on happiness and contentment. Other areas of interest include participatory democracy, the sociology of emotion, and the sociology of knowledge. Can you say a bit about your work on happiness, and what your definition of happiness would be?

Defining happiness I think is really problematic in this area. There are a lot of different definitions floating around, and if you look at studies from economics, psychology, sociology and so on, you’ll see terms like ‘happiness’, ‘subjective wellbeing’, ‘contentment’, and ‘satisfaction’; they not only mean different things within a single study, they can often mean quite different things from study to study. So, what one group might refer to as ‘happiness’ may be closer to ‘wellbeing’ for a different group, and so on.

You might be interested to know that the far majority of happiness research is actually done by economists, which I think is really peculiar. There is a journal called The Journal of Happiness Studies which publishes a lot on this topic. From memory I think about 75–80% of it is written by economists, and most of the remaining 20% is psychologists. So for sociology, and even philosophy, I think it’s interesting to note that especially in journal publications, their voice is really missing from the area.

My research in the sociology of happiness and contentment is interested in looking at a number of things: how societies construct or think about happiness; and how we can think about different forms of happiness depending on whether they are socially derived or perhaps more personally experienced. In my PhD thesis I was trying to set up the distinction of happiness as a personal experience and contentment as a social emotion, or at least a socially dependent emotion. In order to feel content about something I think you need to feel as though it is in line with your expectations; that it’s in line with social standards, norms and values. So, something might make you feel really happy, but if it’s socially deviant it might be hard for that to produce a kind of lasting contentment.

As a result that means that contentment is an aspect of your relationship with society and how you understand yourself through connecting with society, rather than a purely personal, individualistic thing. So in that sense, you could say that happiness and contentment both change over time.

You mentioned the problematic nature of happiness, in what sense is it problematic?

I think one of the reasons happiness is a bit problematic today is really tied to expectations. If you look at a lot of the data and research on happiness levels, it does appear in a lot of this research that happiness is in decline. There is this thing that’s referred to as the ‘Easterlin paradox’ which this very famous researcher discovered, which suggests that as disposable income goes up in advanced first world countries, the number of people reporting that they’re very happy actually goes down. This paradox has been argued about since the 70s I think, but it does still seem to be happening.

I think the reason why we’re seeing this perceived decline is around this idea of expectations; we have come to expect a lot. I expect my TV shows to be instantly available online when I want them to be, I want the latest bits of information on my phone, instantly and smoothly, I expect technology to work. We expect to be able to get from one place to another faster and cheaper. We derive a sense of what we ought to expect from our social life. Not just through socialisation, education, and so on, but also through comparing ourselves to our friends, colleagues and family members.

We develop these ideas about where we ought to be up to, what we ought to have accomplished, and these expectations are really tricky, because we live in a world that is increasingly unpredictable and kind of chaotic. It’s a bit like, you’re setting up these life goals, but by the time you’re ready to accomplish them the goal posts have moved.

You might be doing a university degree, and then at the end of the three or four years it takes you to finish the degree, maybe that career doesn’t really exist in the way it existed when you started the degree. This is something that we all feel strangely familiar about, but at the same time we all expect to have these great careers and to accomplish a great deal. That can be really challenging emotionally, to live with that kind of instability and impermanence, but at the same time have these high expectations for the possibilities of what might happen.

It sounds kind of depressing, but at the same time the reason I’m so interested in this area is that I think there are a lot of really valuable lessons that can be extracted out of sociology that can help us better understand happiness.

Does happiness emerge from contentment? Or are they different things?

I think they’re quite different. One of the funny things about happiness when you look at it in the long term is that often the times in our lives that we look back on as being the happiest were not actually terribly enjoyable while we were doing them. There’s a great line from Theodor Adorno in Minima Moralia where he says that happiness only really exists in memories, because when we are doing things that make us happy, it’s often not really pleasurable.

As an undergraduate student, you might think back to a time when you were writing an essay and it was just painful, it was really tough and you doubted yourself, stressed, worried, and panicked. And then you get a really high grade for it and you look back on this 10 years later as being this great time in your life where you accomplished something fantastic, but at the time you just wanted to crawl back into bed and hide from everything. And that’s of course perfectly normal. That highlights one of the challenges with our thinking about happiness.

I think modernity promises happiness to be this kind of instant gratification, we live in this kind of instant consumer society, and so I think there are aspects of modernity that make promises about happiness that it actually can’t keep. You know, ‘if you do this or that you’ll be happy’, if you get this new car or new outfit and so on. And that teaches us that happiness is something that should be gained instantly, that you should get something for nothing, or get more than you put in. I don’t think happiness really works that way. That leads back to the point I was making before about expectations, that we expect things to be instantly satisfying.

Would you say that happiness, and to an extent contentment, involves an element of hard work?

Yeah, unfortunately. This is an argument that has been going on for a long time. Do we need a degree of unpleasantness in order to help us contextualise pleasantness? I definitely think we need a variety.

Part of that is accepting that a certain degree of unpleasantness or sadness is actually perfectly natural. I think we live in a society that doesn’t think that way. A few hundred years ago we would think about melancholia as being something that highly intelligent people had. The great composer or the great mathematician would go through a period of melancholia and it was admirable. It was like an athlete punishing their body in order to accomplish a physical task. An intellectual would go through melancholia to accomplish some great piece of work. This is something that people really were in awe of, and now it’s something that has to be cured.

Of course, I have to be absolutely clear: my work is more about happiness and sadness in the majority of people. In terms of cases where people are suffering from something quite radically different I’ll hold back from commenting because it’s not my area. I’m not looking at people who are suffering from an illness, I’m looking at people who fit within what we might call ‘normal’, but who, in day to day life will feel happy and feel sad. I think there is definitely a wider scope for thinking about normal amounts of happiness and sadness than we sometimes give credit for. But the idea that sadness necessarily has to be fixed and cured, I don’t buy into that idea.

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