Happiness became a subject of research thanks to Veenhoven (1942). In 1964, he wrote a paper on it as a Sociology student. He sees putting this subject on the map as his life’s work, and he continues to work on it upstairs in the Van der Goot building. Although he is ill, he currently still feels well enough to keep working.

Veenhoven has Kahler’s disease, a type of blood cancer. He has been focused on happiness and life satisfaction his whole career, but little is currently known about the happiness of terminally ill people as himself. “We know that people’s life satisfaction increases towards the end of their lives”, he draws a slowly rising line on the wall of his office with his finger. “But happiness on the deathbed, that’s difficult to research. When you’re dying, who would want to be asked by a researcher: would you rate your life with a 7 or an 8 at this time?”

What is happiness?

What the ‘happiness professor’, which is Veenhoven’s nickname, is actually researching is life satisfaction. This is different from happiness, which is a temporary joyous feeling. “You can feel fine on a night in town, while your view on your life as a whole isn’t so rosy. On the other hand, you can be very satisfied with life, but get out of bed in a bad mood.”

Veenhoven says it was luck that made him the first to work in the field. He still had the opportunity to ask all the interesting questions, instead of just adding information. Essential questions such as ‘what makes one happy?’

What does Veenhoven think is the answer to that? “First of all, your life circumstances”, he says. “Quality of life differs significantly per country, with large differences in happiness as a result. In the Netherlands, the average score is now 7.6 out of 10, whereas in Tanzania it is 3.8. This isn’t just because we are doing better materially in the Netherlands, but also because of a good bureaucracy that is competent and not corrupt. It was rather surprising to see bureaucrats as bringers of happiness.”

A few scars

Happiness also depends on what you make of the circumstances you’re given, says Veenhoven, it depends on your ‘life skills’. Just being happy all the time does not contribute to those. A few scars will help your happiness, the professor knows from research and experience. “It amplifies your perception of your own happiness if you’re unhappy for a while. I went through a divorce, that wasn’t fun. You get some bruises in life, that often increases your life skills.”

Life satisfaction is reasonably measurable, according to Veenhoven. This is something that people are thinking about, and so you can just ask. He specialises in ‘raking together scientific facts’ about life satisfaction. He wants to be able to compare various research results, so he first describes them in clear, uniform terms. “This barely happens in social sciences, but it’s much more common in the medical field. In theory, all publications end up on the global academic forum, and the truth is distilled from all these studies. Well, you can forget it. Linguistic confusion often makes comparative analysis impossible, and most of these data disappear into dusty libraries.”

This is why Veenhoven developed the World Database of Happiness, a findings archive for collecting research results and describing them in fixed formats and with strictly defined terminology. This means that research on life satisfaction is easier to find and compare. His World Database of Happiness now contains some 50,000 pages of descriptions of research results.

Ahead of my time

Currently, nobody thinks twice about studies into happiness. However, it was not initially taken seriously. Veenhoven: “I couldn’t get my research published in sociological magazines, and couldn’t get any funding. If I look back, I can see that I was ahead of my time in some ways.”

As an example, Veenhoven mentions a survey he conducted under students about the functioning of lecturers, which is now a standard procedure at the end of a course. “In the sixties, that was a first. The university just kept growing and growing, they were putting anyone in front of a classroom and the quality suffered. As the editor of the then general Rotterdam student magazine OIK, I circulated a survey on the quality of the courses in the last semester.”

Veenhoven says it caused a stir. “Quod Novum, the predecessor to EM, published a furious piece on the ‘public execution of lecturers’, and the university was pressured to fire me from my position as student assistant. The lecturer he worked for, Henny Langeveld, didn’t mind. She used the survey as an example to discuss empirical research. “At the start of the lecture, she said: ‘You have seen the survey to evaluate lecturers, and that’s a good example of bad research.’”

Ruut Veenhoven_geluksprofessor_campus Woudestein_9.2023_3000_Leroy Verbeet
Ruut Veenhoven loves coming to campus Woudestein. He has seen the campus grow and expand. The fact that there are more students than ever gives him energy. Image credit: Leroy Verbeet

Veenhoven always rejects offers to write a ‘this is how to be happy’ book. If people approach him in school yards, parties, drinks or meetings asking for tips on happiness, he has to disappoint them. “I tell them: ‘I don’t do that, that’s a different career. I can tell you about the average happiness in Siberia, though.’”

If Veenhoven wants to fully understand a subject, he looks to scientific research. When his girlfriend had to deal with an unwanted pregnancy in the sixties, abortion was illegal, but she underwent one anyway. “I hit up the library first to learn more about the subject.” He found out that its illegality was not conducive to women’s health. In the years after that, he supported legalisation. At that point, Veenhoven was still considering a career in government, but at the time, that was not compatible with his chairmanship of the Foundation for Medically Responsible Pregnancy Termination. Abortion was too politically sensitive a topic, so he went back to his university.

Happiness of trans people

His own experiences more often lead to professional interest. Last year, he conducted research into the happiness of trans people with his grandson Jos Veenhoven. Together, they wrote the article Happiness in Transgender People. The idea for this research came when Jos came out as trans. “And you can say: ‘Of course, I accept you completely.’ But you want to understand it fully, it’s an academic tic. This is how I do it. If I’d been an artist, I would’ve made art about it.”

Once again the professor first ‘ransacked the library’ for this theme. The information he found there on the happiness of trans people, he entered into the World Database of Happiness with Jos. Veenhoven hopes that his and Jos’ research can contribute to a better world for trans people, and at the very least for his grandson. It turns out that trans people are happier after their transition than before. In NRC, Jos explained that he would generally rate his life an 8 before transitioning, while he gave it a 5.5 when he was 16. “Changes have downsides as well”, the older Veenhoven says. “If you take hormones, there’s a chance that you’ll live a shorter live. But, you’ll live happier in the years that you do.”


What makes the happiness professor happy? “I know that I’m happy, but I don’t really know why I have to understand the role my genes and upbringing play. I know that most people are happy in my circumstances, such as living in the Netherlands and having a good relationship with your wife and kids. I know that I’m happy about working after retirement, but I can’t know whether I might have felt even better doing something else. Maybe I would’ve been happier if I’d gone fishing or started a stamp collection.”

The fact that Veenhoven enjoys working after retirement makes him an exception, he has discovered from his own research. “I’m currently working on a meta-analysis with two researchers from Taiwan on the effect of working after retirement on your happiness. They want more people to continue working due to labour shortages. They hoped to show that it makes you happier, but that turned out to be wrong. Most people are happier once they stop working completely.”

A steep drop

Veenhoven is pragmatic about his illness, he sees it as ‘you’ve got to die from something’. How will see that at the end? He does not know exactly, but science is his guide. “Average happiness decreases in the last years of one’s life, but less than you might think: an average of half a point. With an average of 7.6 in the Netherlands, you’re still happier than the average Frenchmen, at 6.7.”

The happiness professor does not want to stop doing research. “I’m going to keep going for now. Kahler’s disease will no longer be treatable after a while. “I took a long at the research, and know that the quality of life with this illness remains high for a while, before taking a steep drop near the end. That’s the time to put an end to it”, Veenhoven concludes.