Counting and recounting happiness and culture: On happiness surveys and prudential ethnobiography.


  • Neil Thin University of Edinburgh


happiness, culture, anthropology, self-reports, quantification, biography, self, meaning, suffering


The analysis of numerical data from happiness surveys has caught the attention of governments, corporations, and public media. It is questionable, however, whether the humanistic and empathetic aspirations of happiness scholarship can be well served by numerical reductionism unless this is more effectively complemented by ethnobiographical approaches which explore how self-ratings emerge from cultural contexts and self-narratives. Happiness is imagined, generated, and expressed both through quantification and through stories. In scholarship, as in everyday life, we count and recount our blessings. This somewhat neglected distinction between numerical and narrative representations of happiness applies to conceptual, experiential, and methodological issues. It may help us to understand the social construction of happiness in cultural contexts, in conjunction with other distinctions such as those between affective and cognitive appraisals, and between hedonic and eudaimonic versions of the good life. There are potential synergies between psychometric and ethnobiographical approaches which could help us to recover some of the core humanistic values of the ‘happiness lens’, namely: empathy (respect for subjectivity); positivity (attention to goodness); holism; a lifespan perspective; and consequentialist transparency (making progressive intentions and causal theories explicit). Anthropology has good potential to help strengthen these values, particularly by using ethnobiography to help us understand what numerical representations of happiness mean.


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Author Biography

Neil Thin, University of Edinburgh

Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Teaching, School of Social and Political Science