How Happiness Has Evolved: 1930s to Present


Our society's happiness gauge has changed over a nearly 80-year span.

Our society’s happiness gauge has changed over a nearly 80-year span.

University of Bolton psychologist Sandie McHugh sought to determine how individuals would rate 10 contributors to happiness and then compared the 2014 results to a survey posted in the Bolton Evening News in the 1930s.

The previous study asked “What is happiness?” and 226 individuals sent responses to the newspaper. McHugh and professor Jerome Carson recreated the study with as few changes as possible and then distributed the questionnaire through The Bolton News.

The full list of factors to rank were equality, beauty, leadership, leisure, security, knowledge, politics, religion, good humor, and action.

In 1938, the top 3 factors for happiness were security, knowledge, and religion. In 2014, good humor and leisure took the top 2 spots, while security dropped to third. Meanwhile, religion fell to last place in the list of 10.

Additionally, 61% of respondents to the 2014 survey said they were happier out of town, while the previous subjects leaned more toward being happier while at home.

Luck was deemed an important factor for happiness among 40% of participants in both generations.

More than three-quarters of the 2014 respondents said happiness is not directly linked to money and material possessions. Wealth was not rated highly in the previous study, either.

One of the comments from the 1938 study described how individuals only need a little money for pleasure and enough money for everyday needs. A 2014 subject wrote that enough money to pay rent on time and eat healthy is important.

“The overall impression from the correspondence in 1938 is that happiness factors were rooted in everyday lives at home and within the community,” McHugh said in a University of Bolton press release. “In 2014, many comments value family and friends, with good humor and leisure time also ranked highly.”

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