When I first started reading for my PhD I thought everything I read about happiness research was a ‘fact’. But happiness theory is full of strange studies and less than objective research that in many cases actually has less to do with happiness and more with hegemony, favouring a dominant set of ideas or beliefs. For this GLAM Blog Club theme of strange I’m going to look at the strangest happiness ‘facts’ I’ve read.
I’ve seen these ‘facts’ pop up again and again in library books, journal articles, even Vogue magazine. So it’s time to interrogate the ‘science’ behind three of the most common and yes, strange happiness ‘facts’:
1. Married people are happier than single people: This is a favourite of Martin Seligman in Authentic Happiness. I don’t know the ‘science’ behind it but I’ll bet the research wasn’t qualitative. Clare Payne in her new book, One states that single households are the fastest growing demographic in Australia. You’re condemning a fair chunk of the population to a life of unhappiness and, before marriage equality in Australia, excluding all gay people from ‘happiness’. In some countries believing this study will continue to do so. I think the claim is absolute garbage. And why would you even pursue it unless you had a vested interest in marriage?
2. You can tell how a person’s life will turn out by the smile they had in their class photo: This is another Seligman favourite and was obliterated by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book, Smile or Die. It’s based on a supposed longitudinal study of a graduating class that found people with ‘duchenne’ smiles or ‘smiling with the eyes’ were happier later in life than their classmates. As Ehrenreich revealed no one can actually find proof that this absurd study was ever conducted and so it’s ridiculous premise isn’t even worth deconstructing.
3. You can control 50% of your happiness: This is based on a happiness pie chart that psychologist, Sonya Lyubomirsky drew up. In it she claims that 40% of happiness is genetic, 10% is circumstances and 50% is in your control. As I’ve said before on this blog, I think this is actually a depressing statistic even though happiness theorists laud it as proof of how much agency we have. I also think the theory doesn’t account for the impact of things like war, climate change, natural disasters or colonial invasion where the happiness of a population is so largely disrupted that the 10% of ‘circumstances’ vastly impacts on the other 90% of the puzzle.
These strange ‘happiness facts’ are, of course, not facts at all. Rather they are self serving studies conducted by researchers who are pushing their own agenda. Until we have more diversity in happiness research, more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives and more LGBTIQ+ perspectives happiness theory will continue to be littered with half baked theories and ‘facts’ that only serve the interests of people who are white and heterosexual. Just like politics, journalism and the tech industry what happiness theory needs is diversity.