How do you define happiness?
Jim Allen, associate professor of psychology at SUNY Geneseo, has taken a critical look at that question in his recently published textbook titled, “The Psychology of Happiness in the Modern World: A Social Psychological Approach.” Published by Springer, the book places a socio-cultural lens on the field by emphasizing economic and other social/structural factors that influence human happiness.
“I took a unique approach because most texts and popular accounts of the field have a heavy individualistic focus,” said Allen. “The emphasis in happiness studies or ‘positive psychology’ is most often on how individuals, acting alone, can increase their happiness via gratitude, spirituality, optimism and the cultivation of strong personal relationships.”
Although acknowledging that these individualistic approaches are empirically verified and important, Allen says over emphasis of these factors can give the impression that the surrounding cultural environment is also not important and can place too much responsibility on the individual to “make yourself happy” regardless of circumstances. Allen hopes that the book gives a comprehensive overview of the field that has been heretofore largely lacking.
While giving a full accounting of the traditional, individualistic content of “positive psychology,” Allen’s book also examines how economic systems, economic growth, income inequality, unemployment, cultural values of materialism and consumerism, the levels of society-wide religiosity, cultural norms about the division of household labor, and the structure of marriage, among other factors, influence happiness.
“These structural and cultural factors must be understood to fully understand human happiness, and how it might be increased,” he said.
To address those factors, he includes a chapter that describes not only how individuals can increase their own personal happiness, but also how societies could be specifically structured to promote happiness.
The book is primarily for an academic audience, but Allen says non-academics also will find it interesting and useful.
“Even though the book is thoroughly based on empirical data, I didn’t design it as a ‘self-help’ book,” he said, “but tried to write in an accessible, conversational style with lots of graphical representations of data so the material is easily understood. I think readers will be both intellectually stimulated and will find information that touches their own lives.”