How Our Definition of Happiness Has Changed — From 1938 to Now

Time can offer a different perspective — that’s the result of a study 80 years in the making. (Photo: Getty Images)

Researchers from University of Bolton in the UK recently recreated an experiment that originally took place in 1938. 

Back then, an ad was placed in the Bolton Evening News, asking readers to respond to the age-old question, “What is happiness?” Ten options were offered where participants were instructed to rate the importance of each one. Fast-forward to today where psychology professors followed in the same footsteps of their predecessors.

A total of 226 people responded in 1938 and the top three happiness factors, in order, were: security, knowledge and religion.

Not so for the most current survey. The top three happiness factors, in order, were: humor, leisure and security.

Below are a few quotes included on some of the questionnaires:

Enough money to meet everyday needs and a little for pleasure.” (1938)

Knowing that my rent is paid on time and I can afford to eat healthily.” (2014)

I would like a little home, not many possessions … congenial and satisfying companionship, the availability of good music and books.” (1938)

Engaging in my hobbies, spending time that is free of worry … Simple things like enjoying a nice meal or receiving care and affection.” (2014)

Stacy Kaiser, licensed psychotherapist and author of How To Be a Grown Up, tells Yahoo Health she is not surprised by these findings. “Globally speaking, priorities are based on a generation, the time we’re living in, people’s ages, the economy — all of these things are umbrella factors,” she states. “Because the economy has not been great, the divorce rate is higher than ever, people are looking for satisfaction and happiness in different ways. We’re trying not to rely on the outside, we’re trying to focus on getting it from, ‘What makes me happy right now?’”

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Interestingly enough, religion came in last place during the current survey, yet that doesn’t necessarily mean happiness isn’t derived from believing in a higher power. “In this day and age, people are inclined to discover and figure out their own values and beliefs and not turning to what a religion would tell you you’re supposed to follow,” says Kaiser. “People have become more independent thinkers. And the spiritual route allows someone to find their own path while the traditional religions do not. That’s what our generation is seeking.”

And while it’s a cliché, money still doesn’t seem to buy happiness after all. “People are realizing they can’t count on money,” explains Kaiser. “Just because you have a college education doesn’t mean you have a job. Just because you have a job doesn’t mean it’s going to last or you’ll be able to have everything you want with that money. So the average person has learned that just because you work hard, have an education or have training doesn’t mean you’ll have money—or even enough money. But let’s be honest—some people’s leisure activities are going to be expensive, so they’re going to need the money!”

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She concludes that she sees this shift in priorities as a favorable one. “These findings fit with everyone I speak to now. People are all about figuring out what truly makes them happy. And I think this is a really positive spin.”

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