Jeremy Bentham (1789) was the founding father of utilitarianism, a social philosophy that stressed the importance of happiness (“the sum of pleasures and pains”). Bentham argued that policy-makers should strive for “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. Bentham’s utilitarianism, however, was only theoretical, as happiness was not yet measured in the 18th century. By now, social scientists have developed methods for measuring the kind of happiness that Bentham had in mind. Subjective enjoyment of life can not only be measured at the individual level, but average happiness can also be meaningfully compared across countries. This development has resulted in a new strand of research. Several national characteristics appear to correlate strongly and meaningfully with happiness, e.g. economic development, good governance and gender equality. These and many other research findings are collected in the ‘World Database of Happiness’. This dissertation adds to that growing body of knowledge exploring some new issues in a cross-sectional analysis of happiness in 150 nations around the year 2005 that covers about 95% of the world population. The following findings stand out: 1. Income inequality does not correlate with average happiness in nations. Surprisingly, even the poor are not unhappier in nations with great income inequality. 2. Modernity is an important determinant of average happiness in nations, despite the fact that modernization is often critizised in the sociological and the popular discours. 3. A high degree of religiousness in nations goes together with relatively low happines in rich nations. In poor nations, however, religiousness can turn out positively. Moreover, different religions affect happiness differently. 4. Enforcement of the death death penalty does not seem to undermine happiness, contradicting Bentham’s strong opposition to it. Again, this research has shown that the conditions of a happy society can be studied empirically. This means that a new, evidence-based, utilitarianism now exists that can be applied by policymakers.

governance, life satisfaction, quality of life, subjective well-being
R. Veenhoven (Ruut)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Department of Sociology

Berg, M.C. (2010, October 14). Geluk in landen: Een empirische studie naar condities voor een gelukkige samenleving. Erasmus University Rotterdam. Retrieved from