What is it about?

Across five studies, we found that children as young as age four think "bad people are not happy", even if bad people could get everything they desire. Moral character, but not intelligence or physical traits, influenced children's happiness attributions. The findings suggest that even from early in life, we do not equate happiness as feelings or pleasures, but we think happiness is about being a good person and live a good life.

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Why is it important?

The findings help answer the long-debated philosophical question "what is happiness". Children are traditionally viewed as hedonistic-oriented (as documented by the "happy victimizer phenomenon"), but our findings suggest actually children's thinking is more sophisticated in that, actually as sophisticated as Aristotle's view, that happiness is about virtue rather than pleasures. The findings show that we associate happiness with morality in a relatively unique way, a robust tendency across ages, cultures and languages, which suggests it is likely to be a fundamental cognitive feature of the mind.

Perspectives

Prior to doing the studies, we strongly expected to find an age difference, that as children grow older, their views about happiness also become more evaluative and less hedonistic. Thus we were very surprised by the fact that moral character played a role in happiness attributions even among preschoolers. This shows that the effect is rooted in childhood and is much more basic than we thought. In fact, it may be hard for us to even imagine someone who is very mean but is truly happy. Why do we have this fundamental association in mind? Does this also apply to evaluations of our own happiness? These are fascinating questions to be answered and may have implications for people to live a happy life.

Fan Yang
Yale University

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This page is a summary of: Happiness is from the soul: The nature and origins of our happiness concept., Journal of Experimental Psychology General, February 2021, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/xge0000790.
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