Visions of Happiness

I argue that asking about happiness has the possibility to reveal a purpose in life, which can function as a motivator, even in the most dire situations.

Image by Hugo Jehanne

Jasper Steggink is an anthropologist living in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Currently working for Namasté Foundation.

1,600 words

The use of happiness as a conceptual tool within anthropology

Happiness is a thoroughly debated concept with many interpretations and meanings. The boundaries of its definition vary considerably according to its context, making it hard to pin down. Nevertheless, this essay isn’t about how to find happiness, nor is it a philosophical deconstruction of what happiness is all about. This essay is an exploration on how ideas about happiness can be used as a conceptual tool within ethnographic studies. In essence, this essay shows how the concept of happiness can have a practical application for the study of anthropology.

Building on an anthropologic case study by Henrik E. Vigh (2015), who wrote about militant, urban youth in post-war Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, I argue that asking about happiness has the possibility to reveal a purpose in life, which can function as a motivator, even in the most dire situations. Conflict and warfare, from which Guinea-Bissau has suffered from in the past, may seem as a strange point of departure when talking about happiness, but the case study shows that visions of a positive prospect transcend conflict engagement for the young militiamen. Thus, the pursuit of happiness, rather than an ideological standpoint, motivated the militant youth to go in to war (Vigh 2015, 93). This finding was revealed by asking the militant youth what happiness means to them, which aids to prove the point of the essay.

‘You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.’ – Albert Camus

An essay about happiness simply has to start with a quote. Preferably one that is deeply insightful. One that makes you contemplate your love life, your friendships, and makes you reflect on the rat race you are probably in. Albert Camus has some really good ones. But also Dr. Seuss, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, John Lennon and Audrey Hepburn. Or what about Christopher McCandless’ ‘Happiness is only real when shared’. A modern classic.

The market is flooded with quotes, self-help books, and techniques on the subject. Many of which promise some kind answer. Advising the reader to become more social or to spend more time alone, to slow down or speed up, to contemplate the life one’s living, or, like Camus’, to just live. If anything, this phenomenon shows that no one holds the answer. Otherwise simply one quote would suffice.

If this is the case. If there is no one who holds ‘the answer’ on how to find happiness, and, as you will read, if there is no set definition, then what to do with such a wide spread, well known concept? What function does the term happiness have for anthropology?

Happiness within anthropology
For the last decade or so, research about happiness has flourished in the scholarly world, a phenomenon coined as the happiness turn (Ahmed 2010). Most prominently in the fields of psychology and economics, where happiness became an alternative way to measure prosperity, instead for example income or national product. But Walker and Kavedžija (2015) describe that the happiness turn didn’t have the same impact within the discipline of anthropology. Perhaps because using happiness as a form of measurement, especially within economics, one has to quantify the amount of happiness felt by individuals. But for the discipline of anthropology, which prides itself in being holistic and interpretative, a reductionist way of using the term seems unfit.

For one, and as opposed to happiness, anthropologists do know how to write about hardship. Barbara R. Johnston (2012, 6) writes about a call for a cultural critique on ‘trouble’ in 1992, proposed by Roy Rappaport, who outlined a vision of engaged anthropology with a focus on the hardships people face. Through this call Rappaport hoped to challenge anthropologists to serve in a corrective way, both as scholars as well as citizens, through advocacy and action. Ever since there have been numerous efforts that show that anthropologists have much to say about trouble and hardship (Bodley 2008; Crate and Nutall 2009; Farmer 2003; Hale 2008; Hinton 2002, 2010; Johnston 1994, 2009; Merry; Rylko-Bauwer et al. 2009; Scudder 2010 in Johnston et al. 2012, 6). But human life is synergistic, and focusing only on the darker matters will not provide a complete perspective. Thus, scholarly speaking, a holistic analysis of the anthropos is incomplete without also understanding what the absence of trouble and hardship imply. The more one strives towards a holistic description of human life, the more focus on the concept of happiness becomes justifiable.

Understanding happiness
In order to use the concept of happiness, Walker and Kavedžija argue that happiness can best be understood as a condition we strive to move toward, mainly because pursuing happiness seems to give the concept most life (Walker and Kavedžija 2015, 2), not to measure happiness, but to explain action. ‘People use it to designate what they don’t have yet, what they are longing for, that which they have just lost and would like again’ (Lear 2009). Their focus is, thus, not on comparing levels of happiness, but on how ideas about happiness shape people’s lives, both conditioned by social values as well as aspirations that are potentially conflicting (Walker and Kavedžija 2015, 5). Benjamin N. Colby also asks himself the question whether or not a measure of well-being is possible or desirable within anthropology. He concludes that, even as simple questions like ‘what makes you happy/unhappy’ seem, asking about happiness can be enormously productive (2010, 61). Thus, we should refrain from asking whether or not people are happy, but rather ‘how happiness ‘works’, or what it ‘does’, how it enters into people’s lives, leading them to choose one path over another and what it reveals about those people in the process (Walker and Kavedžija 2015, 7).

When talking about happiness one can, broadly speaking, differentiate between two schools of thought, namely the hedonic and the eudaimonistic school (Konow and Earley 2007, 8). The hedonic school focuses on happiness as the highest good. The discipline defines well-being in terms of pleasure attainment and the avoidance of suffering. The eudaimonic approach focuses on meaning, growth, virtuous action and self-realization, and is characterized as progress towards psychological well-being. This school defines well-being in terms of the degree to which a person is fully functioning (Konow and Earley 2007, 9; Ryan and Deci 2001, 141; Vigh 2015, 104). One could argue that eudaimonia, being the nobler form, ought to triumph over hedonism as the proper explanation for happiness. Acts of generosity, cultivating natural talents and friendliness towards others are generally seen as more valuable than the fleeting happiness associated with hedonism. But, paradoxically, in order to be generous towards others, one has to be able to give. Thus, in order to enjoy eudaimonia one has to first strive for hedonistic prizes (Konow and Earley 2007). Anthropologist Michael Jackson manages to address this constant conflict when he points towards ‘understanding well-being, not as a settled state but as a field of struggle’ (2011, ix).

Applying happiness
Well-being and happiness understood as a field of struggle is vividly described in Henrik E. Vigh’s article Militantly Well (2015), where he applies the concept of happiness on militant, urban youth in post-war Bissau, Guinea-Bissau. In his case, Vigh aims to clarify why young urban men join a war ‘devoid of ideological standpoints and collective visions of dangerous others’ (2015, 96, 2009). For these young men the possibilities to achieve the social positions expected of them have gotten less and less, mostly due to political and economic deterioration (2015, 99). For them mobilization in to the army is seen as a way to reduce the hardship they are facing while creating a possibility to live up to their social potential after the war is fought (2015, 93). They reckon that the social cohesion found through fighting side to side with other men will benefit them after the war in such a way that new possibilities arise (2015, 96).

Although this scenario of conflict and suffering provides an unusual point of departure for discussing happiness and well-being, following the militant youth does show how the struggle for happiness drives us towards even the most difficult circumstances. Even though the narrative of the militant youth can very well be told as a story of suffering, focusing only on their choice making as coming from anguish and distress would subdue the intrinsic motivation the youth shows to join the military. Thus, questioning what they understand as happiness brings out another aspect of their actions. This doesn’t mean that, for the case of the militia men, the dire situation they find themselves in before joining the war aren’t important aspects of the decision making, they simply do not clarify all their motivations. In the case described by Vigh, a more nuanced story is brought forth. One that describes feelings of camaraderie and empowerment, for he describes reasons given by the militant youth that see joining the army as an ‘opening in an otherwise closed and stagnated social environment’ (2015, 104). Simplistically speaking, their visions of happiness transcend the suffering that is brought upon them for joining a war.

The happiness paradox
Vigh’s article shows how the pursuit of happiness may, paradoxically, produce actions that create situations of suffering (2015, 106). Jackson describes this observation as happiness having an ironic presence when sought in conditions that are not generally conducive to it. We may always want to chase happiness regardless of the situation we find ourselves in (2011, ix). For militant youth of Guinea-Bissau, the happiness paradox can also be seen in the conflicting motivations behind joining the military, for it is both hedonistically a direct move out of poverty, insecurity and marginality, and into a possibility of future happiness through hardship and direct conflict, which can be labeled eudaimonistic. This rather literal fight for happiness, the dualistic combination of hardship and happiness, seem to be dialectically related. Hardship is brightened by hopefulness, suffering by imaginaries of well-being (Jackson 2011), yet happiness seems only attainable by going through war, coming with the possibility of even more suffering and hardship.

Happiness moves people along. It is the other side of the coin that can just as easily be labeled as actions out of hardship and suffering.


In the conclusion of his paper Vigh cites Jackson to describe the function that happiness has for the militant youth. He writes: ‘as an existential goal, it reveals itself in imaginaries and instantiations that are transitory and contingent. It moves as people move along, shifting elsewhere when approached, making us chase it regardless of the situation we find ourselves in’ (2015, 106). Thus, happiness moves people along. It is the other side of the coin that can just as easily be labeled as actions out of hardship and suffering. Perhaps questions about hardship reveal a similar answer, but the nuance lies in the placement of agency. For me, writing about happiness is empowering the people that find themselves in unfortunate situations. Asking about happiness gives them the possibility to show that they are competent agents, fighting a structure they oppose. The militant youth are the prime example of this. The meaning they are united with is so powerful that it pushes back the adversary that would otherwise characterize life. Or, as Nietzsche would say: ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how’ (Nietzsche 1990).

Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

Colby, Benjamin Nick. 2010. “Is a Measure of Cultural Well-Being Possible or Desirable?” In Pursuits of Happiness, edited by Gordon Mathews and Carolina Izquierdo, 45–64. New York: Berghahn Books.

Jackson, Michael. 2011. Life Within Limits: Well-Being in a World of Want. Durham: Duke University Press.

Johnston, Barbara Rose, Elizabeth Colson, Dean Falk, Graham St John, John H. Bodley, Bonnie J. McCay, Alaka Wali, Carolyn Nordstrom, and Susan Slyomovics. 2012. “On Happiness.” American Anthropologist 114 (1): 6–18.

Konow, James, and Joseph Earley. 2007. “The Hedonistic Paradox: Is Homo-Economicus Happier?” Journal of Public Economics 92 (1): 1–33.

Lear, Jonathan. 2009. Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1990. The Twilight of the Idols and the Anti-Christ: Or How to Philosophize with a Hammer (Penguin Classics). Edited by Michael Tanner. London: Penguin Books.

Ryan, Richard M, and Edward L Deci. 2001. “On Happiness and Human Potential: A Review of Research on Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-Being.” Annual Review of Psychology 52: 141–66.

Vigh, Henrik. 2009. “Wayward Migration: On Imagined Futures and Technological Voids.” Ethnos 74 (1): 91–109.

———. 2015. “Militantly Well.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5 (3): 93–110.
Walker, Harry, and Iza Kavedžija. 2015. “Values of Happiness.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5 (3): 1–23.

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Special thanks to Martijn, Teun en Jesse