This book started as a conversation about successful societies and human development. It was originally based on a simple idea— it would be unusual if, in a society that might be reasonably deemed as successful, its citizens were deeply unhappy. This combination— successful societies and happy citizens— raised immediate and obvious problems. How might one define “success” when dealing, for example, with a society as large and as complex as the United States? We ran into equally major problems when trying to understand “happiness.” Yet one constantly hears political analysts talking about the success or failure of various democratic institutions. In ordinary conversations one constantly hears people talking about being happy or unhappy. In the everyday world, conversations about living in a successful society or about being happy do not appear to cause bewilderment or confusion. “Ordinary people” do not appear to find questions like— is your school successful or are you happily married?— meaningless or absurd. Yet, in the social sciences, both “successful societies” and “happy lives” are seen to be troublesome.
As our research into happiness and success unfolded, the conundrums we discussed were threefold: societal conditions, measurements and concepts. What are the key social factors that are indispensable for the social and political stability of any given society? Is it possible to develop precise measures of social success that would give us reliable data? There are a range of economic indicators that might be associated with success, such as labor productivity, economic growth rates, low inflation and a robust GDP. Are there equally reliable political and social measures of a successful society and human happiness? For example, rule of law and the absence of large- scale corruption might be relevant to the assessment of societal happiness. These questions about success led us inexorably to what seems to be a futile notion: happiness. Economic variables such as income or psychological measures of well- being in terms of mental health could be easily analyzed; however, happiness is a dimension that has been elusive to the social sciences.
In our unfolding conversation, there was also another stream of thought, namely that the social sciences appeared to be more open to the study of human unhappiness rather than happiness.