At the 2016 annual TASA Conference at ACU in Melbourne, the eminent Professor Bryan Turner offered an opening keynote on the topic of happiness. Using this platform, Turner rightly acknowledged the absence of sociological perspectives in contemporary happiness debates.
This rapidly growing field is drawing interest from academics and the general public alike, and yet the dominant perspectives are almost exclusively based in the disciplines of economics and psychology. However, Turner’s evaluation overlooks the abundant – although arguably neglected – history of sociological perspectives on happiness. I would argue that the canonical sociological thinkers could all be read as responding the question ‘in what ways do social conditions interrupt or derail our efforts to find happiness?’ I have argued this in more detail elsewhere (McKenzie 2016) but for now it seems evident that from Marx’s alienation, and Weber’s disenchantment, to Simmel’s blasé attitude and Durkheim’s anomie, sociology has always been interested in the structural road-blocks to happiness and well-being. But what these perspectives lack – and economists and psychologists readily offer – are the affirmative rather than critical pieces of happiness advice. This is perhaps why the sociology of happiness is not a more established and recognised field.
In the discipline of economics, we find empirical work like the World Happiness Report. This annually updated document offers data from over 150 countries and represents the most authoritative and expansive analysis of happiness from any discipline. The scale of this ongoing research program is without equal in the academic disciplines and is notably responsible for announcing the exclusive number one ranking for each year (in 2018, it was Finland). While the authors of this document offer a variety of insights on the state of happiness from around the globe, the appeal of reports such as this are the correlations between specific living conditions and self-reported happiness scores. After all, many readers are driven by the desire to know what works and what doesn’t, and more recently we have seen governments in the UK and Germany claim to use this kind of data to inform policy and economic decisions. Of course, correlation is not causation and studies like this tend to understate the importance of cultural and linguistic differences at the national and community level.
Meanwhile the popularity of happiness texts from positive psychology are evident in the best seller lists of Amazon or the Book Depository. Positive psychology is built on the idea that an individual’s baseline happiness level can be raised through practicing techniques such as mindfulness, gratitude and positive visualisation. The enormously popular texts produced by this discipline vary significantly in their methodological scrutiny, yet they all offer a kind of ‘personal trainer’ for individual happiness pursuits that present happiness as a skill to be mastered with the advice of experts. Inevitably, these kinds of skills – while useful to many – place excessive responsibility on the individual to perform and often overlook the substantial structural inequalities behind the everyday struggles of contemporary individuals. To the sociologist, this material is interesting only as a reflection of a quick-fix consumer society, hungry for answers that align with the already held habitus of modern individuals (Cederström & Spicer 2015).
Sociological approaches might just be the missing piece of the puzzle in modern attempts to understand happiness. I suggest that the earliest recognisable notion of sociological happiness can be found in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right  where happiness (as well as autonomy and rights) are the result of specific kinds of mutually beneficial social relationships. Happiness is therefore a characteristic of relationships that validate and recognise selves as worthy of the respect and appreciation of others. This version of social happiness can be traced through Marx and Frankfurt School, and ultimately to the current work Axel Honneth with his theory of social freedom (Honneth 2014). The current popularity of happiness pursuits as an attempt to defy or overcome unfulfilling relationships is a dead end for Hegel, instead we need positive and legitimising relationships with one another in order to possess a self worthy of happiness.
Some 80 years later, Durkheim’s On Suicide would demonstrate that the deterioration of social bonds known as anomie would contribute the likelihood of suicide. This finding challenged the long-held assertion that the act of taking one’s life was reducible to individual disorders and personal characteristics, instead Durkheim offered evidence that even the most private act could be influenced by social conditions. While Durkheim was certainly no Hegelian scholar, both of these perspectives offer a basis upon which a sociology of happiness can be formed. One that emphasises the extent to which normative happiness ideals are culturally set, exchanged and mediated; one that recognises the need for recognition from others; one that sees the concept of authentic and fulfilling selfhood as inseparable from social context.
If one is looking to sociology for guidance on the path to happiness, there are gems of wisdom to be found in almost every corner. But sociology is unable to provide simple answers to the question of happiness. There is no gratitude exercise, juice cleanse, or flexible workplace arrangement that can offer a straightforward path to happiness. Economists can profess that earning X amount of money or working X number of hours correlate strongly with happiness. While psychologists can design programs for positive thinking, maximising gratitude and finding flow. Meanwhile, the sociological response remains: ‘it’s complicated’. Happiness involves a complex mess of factors, conditions and expectations (McKenzie 2016). It involves assertions of power and self-regulation (Ahmed 2010). It is multi-definitional, multi-dimensional and constantly in transition. It is nostalgic and historical, but also future dependant and full of hope (Hyman 2014). It is experienced subjectively but sourced collectively. It is attitudinal, episodic and evaluative. But thinking of it as anything less is to do the concept, and ourselves, a disservice.
Ahmed, S. (2010) The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Cederström, C. & Spicer, A. (2015) The Wellness Syndrome. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Hegel G. W. F. (1962)  Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (trans. Knox, T. M.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2018). World Happiness Report 2018. Sustainable Development Solutions Network: New York.
Honneth, A. (2014) Freedom’s Right. Cambridge: Polity Press
Hyman, L. (2014) Happiness. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
McKenzie, J. (2016). Deconstructing Happiness: Critical Sociology and the Good Life. Routledge: New York.
About the author
Dr Jordan McKenzie completed his PhD at Flinders University and is now a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Wollongong. His research is largely informed by European social and critical theory, and these perspectives contribute to his current research in the sociology of emotion. In particular, Jordan’s work critically engages with the current cultural fascination with happiness and the good life in order to better understand how emotional experience reflects modernization and social change. This research has culminated in his most recent monograph Deconstructing Happiness: Critical Sociology and the Good Life (2016).