The happiness turn? Mapping the Emergence of “Happiness
Studies” using Cited References.
Christopher Kullenberg • Gustaf Nelhans
Abstract This article analyzes “happiness studies” as an emerging field of inquiry throughout various
scientific disciplines and research areas. Utilizing four operationalized search terms in the Web of
Science; “happiness”, “subjective well-being”, “life satisfaction” and “positive affect”, a dataset was
created for empirical citation analysis. Combined with qualitative interpretations of the publications, our
results show how happiness studies has developed over time, in what journals the citing papers have been
published, and which authors and researchers are the most productive within this set. We also trace
various trends in happiness studies, such as the social indicators movement, the introduction of positive
psychology and various medical and clinical applications of happiness studies. We conclude that
“happiness studies” has emerged in many different disciplinary contexts and progressively been
integrated and standardized. Moreover, beginning at the turn of the millennium, happiness studies has
even begun to shape an autonomous field of inquiry, in which happiness becomes a key research problem
for itself. Thus, rather than speaking of a distinct “happiness turn”, our study shows that there have been
many heterogeneous turns to happiness, departing in a number of different disciplines.
Keywords: happiness studies, cited references, bibliographic coupling, multidisciplinary, citation analysis
C. Kullenberg (✉), G. Nelhans
Dept. of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science, University of Gothenburg, Box 200, 405 30, Gothenburg,
Swedish School of Library and Information Science (SSLIS), University of Borås, Borås, Sweden e-mail: e-mail:
The scientific inquiry into human happiness, in the form of a modern empirical field of study, has become
an integrated line of research throughout various disciplines. Concepts such as “subjective well-being”,
“happiness”, “positive affect” and “life satisfaction” are nowadays employed in various areas; from
sociology, economics and psychology, to gerontology, psychiatry and medicine. There is even a
specialized field called positive psychology that focuses on strategies for enabling the good life for the
individual (see Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi 2000). In the year 2000, the Journal of Happiness Studies
was founded, and in 2006 the Journal of Positive Psychology. However, these thematic and
multidisciplinary journals are of a recent date. There exists an interesting earlier historical account of
happiness studies that we wish to shed light on from a scientometric point of view.
In this article, we aim at drawing a more precise map of the scientific research contexts in which
happiness studies has become a core activity, an integrated part of research, or a peripheral side-activity to
normal science within a pre-existing discipline. We will use (quantitative) scientometric methods to
explore the places where happiness research has emerged, and furthermore, in which disciplines the core
concepts have been put to use for scientific research. Consequently, the aim is to show how a new
research field — “happiness studies” — has emerged, consolidated and become integrated into practices
of research. But, a purely quantitative account is insufficient for identifying the relevant aspects of the
content of specific research practices. We will thus, along the lines of Van Heur, Leydesdorff and Wyatt
(2012) combine quantitative and qualitative methods. This way, we are able to understand not only the
frequency of well-cited authors, articles and journals, but also why these units acquire specific
importance, what the historical contexts are, and why some attempts to conduct happiness studies
disappear from history as research develops and changes.
The impact of happiness studies has grown in relevance during the past two decades. Today,
various measurements of happiness are frequently used in cross-national comparisons outside academic
research, for example the United Nations Human Development Report (UNDP 2013), and the World
Happiness Report (Helliwell 2012). Happiness and well-being are becoming increasingly important
issues in policy-making, which could be regarded as a return of the “greatest happiness principle”, as
outlined by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century (see for example Layard 2005). In
the UK, the Office for National Statistics even provide regular nation-wide measurements of various
aspects of well-being and happiness, as a compliment to GDP (Powell 2014).
Recently, a trend of “positive psychology” has become increasingly popularized for a wider
readership (see for example Lyubomirsky 2007, Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi 2000), where the
development of concrete strategies for the individual to increase her levels of happiness in life are made
the focus of inquiry. The wide dissemination of happiness studies is, nevertheless, quite a new
phenomenon. It seems that there is even a reason for speaking about a “happiness turn” taking place at the
turn of the millennium, influencing both the direction of science and politics, and being reported on
widely in the mass media and popular culture (Ahmed 2007; 2010). To find the origins of such a “turn”,
however, we must go back several decades in time, in order to find its scientific place of birth. Only then
is it possible to test the “happiness turn hypothesis” against empirical publication data.
To create a broad dataset1 that includes multiple disciplinary research fields, Web of Science (WoS) topic
(TS) searches were based on four search terms: “happiness”, “subjective well-being”, “life satisfaction”
and “positive affect”. The selection of search terms were the result of a systematic literature review where
core concepts were identified. Our goal was to create a dataset that would encompass a wide variety of
studies concerned with human happiness and well-being, yet distinct enough to exclude the much broader
field of research which aims at improving “quality of life” in general. In the literature review, we
analyzed how the terminology of happiness studies has changed qualitatively over time by consulting a
number of authoritative and well-cited literature reviews written by happiness researchers (Wilson 1967;
Diener 1984; Diener et al. 1999; Lyubomirsky et al. 2005). This review showed that in the first half of the
20th century, the term “happiness” was commonly used as a distinctive term. Analyzing Wilson’s (1967)
Correlates of Avowed Happiness displays how term “happiness” had acquired a social-psychological
definition during the first half of the 20th century, a distinction that is of interest to us because it marks a
departure point for empirical research on happiness, in contrast to a purely philosophical account, which
preceded the first social scientific surveys. Then, especially in the field of gerontology, the term “life
satisfaction” started to gain momentum in the 1960s, as highlighted by Neugarten et al.’s (1961) Life
Satisfaction Index, a Scale of Measurement, and it became a widely used concept, even up until today.
Moreover, in the same period, Bradburn’s (1965) The Structure of Psychological Well-being introduced
the concept of “positive affect” as a way of understanding and measuring human happiness. Finally, the
term “subjective well-being” picked up speed two decades later with Diener’s (1984) article Subjective
Well-being, which is one of the most cited articles in our dataset. This article marks the beginning of a
conceptual consolidation, evidenced not only by Diener’s 1984 article, but also of the article Subjective
Well-being: Three decades of Progress (Diener et al. 1999), and, as a recent example, by Lyubomirsky et
1 Additional visualizations for this article can be viewed at http://scientometrics.flov.gu.se/happiness/scientometrics/
and the data is archived at the Swedish National Data Service, http://snd.gu.se/en.
al. (2005), where 225 articles were included in a large meta-analysis. Analyzing these literature reviews,
we have been able to identify four inclusive search terms, which are not limited to specific clinical or
specialized uses, while simultaneously avoiding the very broad terms of “quality of life” and “well-
being”, terms that stretch beyond the scope of a distinct happiness studies field.
These four terms overlap to some degree, but as the co-occurrence matrix (Table 1) shows, they
are not used synonymously. Thus, it is possible to conduct happiness research using only one or two of
these terms. We chose not to include terms that were wider in meaning, for example the single terms
“affect” or “well-being” without their distinguishing prefixes “positive” and “subjective”, respectively.
Not only would we then include a lot of research unrelated to happiness studies, we would also collect far
too much data for in-depth analysis (only “affect” gives 1.6M hits in the WoS).
In conclusion, we have thus created a dataset based on both qualitative and quantitative choices.
We have tried to balance between two trade-offs: On the one hand, there is a chance we miss out on
highly specialized concepts that are qualitatively important for defining happiness studies by limiting our
study to only four search terms. We also run the risk of excluding the types of research that employ very
general terms when conducting happiness studies, such as “quality of life”, “affect” or “well-being”.
However, our qualitative review of the field strongly suggests that the four terms selected are at the core
of the canonical literature, and our quantitative analysis shows that these articles belong to the most cited
backbone of publications (see also Table 2). Additionally, the use of cited references allow us to identify
highly cited publications even if they are not found in our retrieved dataset.
Table 1: Co-occurrence matrix of terms used for happiness research showing the degree of overlap between usage of
selected terms based on searches in the “topic” (TS) [title, abstract and author generated keywords fields] search
field in the WoS. Because the dynamic nature of the WoS index and because our field work was conducted over a
period of several months during 2013/14, the exact amount of articles may vary in small numbers throughout our
tables and graphs.
happiness subj. well being life satisfaction positive affect
happiness 11.247 1.101 1.460 413
subj. well being 1.101 3.551 1.100 243
life satisfaction 1.460 1.100 8.703 396
positive affect 413 243 396 5.250
We base our study on cited references and the clusters that emerge when these are quantified using the
VOSviewer software package (see Van Eck and Waltman 2010). Following Small (1978) we treat cited
references as being symbolic, in the sense that they are representing “experimental findings,
methodologies, types of data, metaphysical notions, theoretical statements or equations – or, in general
when dealing with citations, any statement which may be taken as characterizing or describing the cited
document.” (Small 1978: 329). In other words, when an author cites an article, he or she creates its
meaning – this is the symbolic dimension of the citation. But the very act of citing is also performative:
statements and scientific findings acquire and change their meaning when they are in the “hands of later
users” (Latour 1987: 59). In our study we approach this phenomenon from an aggregated point of view,
using bibliographic coupling of sources as a technique to cluster journals in which papers that cite similar
literature are found close to each other. The clusters we describe (generated by VOSviewer) are based on
cited references that are mapped onto a landscape of journals that is simultaneously created, which we in
turn interpret as deriving their consistency from a symbolic dimension, where authors have cited specific
articles as a process of incorporating findings, methodologies and theoretical notions that belong to a
specific concept or idea (even though this could consist of a broad research problem when working with
An alternative approach would be to use a pre-defined map, such as presented by Rafols et al.
(2010). They argue that:
“[…] local maps are very useful to understand the internal dynamics of a research field or emergent
discipline, but typically they cover only a small area of science. Local maps have the advantage of being
potentially accurate in their description of the relations within a field studied, but the disadvantage is that
the units of analyses and the positional coordinates remain specific to each study. As a result, these maps
cannot teach us how a new field or institute relates to other scientific areas. Furthermore, comparison
among different developments is difficult because of the different methodological choices (thresholds and
aggregation levels) used in each map.” (Rafols et al. 2010: 1873, italics in original)
While we agree that the global map of scientific publications is needed for positioning a field in a “total”
scientific landscape, our local map has another purpose. We are interested in any scientific activity that
has any connection to happiness studies whatsoever. This is how happiness studies is “constructed” as a
dynamic area of research involving heterogeneous scientific actors. Thus, when we discover a consistent
cluster in our material, it means that we are describing a concept or idea unfolding in the field of
happiness studies; and from a historical point of view, we try to detect these clusters as they emerge over
To understand the trends in happiness studies, a historical account is needed, and first and foremost it is
necessary to look at the total expansion of the field, compared to the Web of Science average (SCI-e,
SSCI, A&HCI; CPCI-S, CPCI-SSH).
Figure 1. Published articles in absolute numbers. Happiness search terms (left), compared to Web of Science total
per year (right).
As shown in Figure 1, “happiness studies” is a relatively young field of study, in terms of publication
frequency. From 1990, there was an increase in publications, which accelerated during the first years of
the 2000s when all four search terms began to increase drastically. Compared to the almost linear growth
of the entire Web of Science during this time, happiness studies began to make a quantitative leap only at
the turn of the millennium.
Figure 2. Published articles per search term, as a percentage of the total published papers. Since some papers
include more than one of the terms, the sum can be higher than 100 percent. Moreover, prior to the 1990s, as shown
in Figure 1, the total number of published articles is very low, hence the straggly patterns in the left side part of the
Moreover, Figure 2 indicates that the four search terms stabilized already in the beginning of the 1990s,
as the first increase in publication frequency started. Before this stabilization, “happiness” and “life
satisfaction” dominated the area of study, but during the 1990s, an increasing number of publications
containing the more technical terms “positive affect” and “subjective well-being” became popular. Today,
there is still a quantitative difference in usage among the terms, however much smaller. This also
indicates that happiness studies has gained a high enough frequency in publications for us to speak of a
field of scientific research that produces meaningful patterns and regularities as objects of analysis.
The emergence of “happiness studies” in scientific journals
To understand the various contexts of research that have been involved in the making of happiness
studies, we visualized the bibliographic coupling of sources cited in the data set. The four search terms
yielded sporadic search hits dating back to 1904, but the hits before 1960 are too few to produce
meaningful quantitative results2. We divided the material in two 15-year intervals for the period 1960–
1989. From 1990–2013 we employed 5-year intervals, although the last set only comprises the broken
interval of 4 years 2010–2013. This irregular division is motivated both by the increase in publications, as
described in Figure 1 and 2, and because a higher degree of resolution is needed to spot the emergence of
new fields of study that adopted happiness measurements from the 90s and onwards. In the presentation
of these results, there is a methodological “lag” of two kinds. Firstly, citations are delayed due to the slow
process of publication (some fields of study, such as the social sciences, are especially slow in citations as
indicated by a larger cited half-life (compared to the natural sciences)) and a higher citation rate of older
literature (Nederhof 2006). Secondly, new journals are delayed for inclusion to the WoS because of the
index inclusion criteria3. Thus, our results must be interpreted with such “lag effects” in mind.
1960–1974: The gerontological emergence
So where did happiness studies come from, as a scientific enterprise? Finding the origin of a
multidisciplinary research field, such as happiness studies, is of course difficult using only quantitative
data. However, when analyzing the publications between 1960 and 1974, a pattern emerges. The
publications in this phase are few, but clearly centered around the journals Gerontologist and Journals of
Gerontology. When looking into the publications from this period, a central research problem concerns
well-being and happiness in relation to “successful aging”. The researchers in this field want to
understand and measure how aging populations feel, and what the correlates are that make them feel
happier during their final years in life. Moreover, there are also eight articles in the Journal of Marriage
and The Family, where most titles concern research on “marital happiness” and family-related well-being.
There is also a small cluster around Psychological Reports that consists of articles treating various
problems, from sexual behavior and happiness, to geriatric and marital correlations with happiness levels.
2 For the period 1904–1959, see additional online material at
3 For details, see http://wokinfo.com/essays/journal-selection-process/
Two publications4 (see Table 2) are of special relevance in this gerontological departure phase. The article
“The Measurement of Life Satisfaction” by Neugarten et al. (1961) introduces the “Life Satisfaction
Index”, an important scale for measuring satisfaction with life. This article will be cited frequently in the
future, throughout all our data, but especially within gerontological publications. Moreover, Bradburn’s
book The Structure of Psychological Well-Being (1969), is a constitutive publication for the emerging
field of happiness studies, as it introduces another scale of measurement: the “Affect Balance Scale”,
which measures positive and negative affect.
Thus, according to our findings, the first iteration of “happiness studies” takes place primarily in
connection with gerontological research on “successful aging”. To understand the research problems that
this line of research was occupied with, and how these problems were promoted by factors external to
science, can only be revealed properly by further qualitative in-depth analyses. The scientometric
analyses, however, provide a picture of both the type of journals and the central publications of this
formative period. Moreover, during this first 15-year period, the scarcity of publications (indexed in the
WoS) on the topics studied here, needs to be taken into account when assessing the validity of
1975–1989: Consolidation of Gerontology. Emergence of Social Indicators and Social
The first gerontological phase consolidates during the next period of analysis. Gerontological research
and family/marriage studies start to share similar references, as shown by their cluster proximity. This
could be interpreted as gerontology and family studies are sharing conceptual structures that produce this
citational proximity when happiness is the object of study. In other words, when these researchers want to
study happiness, they retrieve similar concepts, which in turn are integrated in their research.
4 For additional visualizations of co-citation analyses of individual publications, see additional material at
Figure 4: 1975–1989, N=Set of 109 connected journal titles from a total of 602 journal titles. Minimum number of documents of a source: 2.
In Figure 3 it is also possible to spot the emergence of a cluster of articles published in Social Indicators
Research. When going into details for this particular journal, it is worth noting that 29 out of a total of 41
articles (reviews, editorials excluded) between 1978 and 1989 cite Andrews and Withey’s book Social
Indicators of Well-being (1976)
. During the same period, only 4 articles were published that did not cite
any of Andrews’ publications. Social Indicators of Well-being, as a central publication, and Andrews and
as influential researchers, can be seen in this case as an “obligatory passage point” (Latour 1999:
184) for publishing articles that set out to measure well-being in the late 70s and 80s. Andrews and
Withey not only inspired researchers to think of well-being as a distinctively social indicator, they also
introduced a way of measuring it, called the “Delighted-Terrible Scale” (Andrews and Withey 1976).
Consequently, there is more than one reason for the centrality of this work; the general approach of using
happiness as an indicator, and the methodological use of a specific scale of measurement. Interestingly,
the emergence of Social Indicators Research is only weakly correlated with the developments in
gerontology. Only in rare cases do they share cited references in this emerging phase, at least when
See all publications for Social Indicators Research at
Andrews and Withey are also the authors of the very first 1974 article in Social Indicators Research.
looking only at the publications in the core journals: Journals of Gerontology, Gerontologist and Social
Indicators Research. They do, however, meet in broad literature reviews such as Diener (1984), and in
some cases when, for example, the Life Satisfaction Index of Neugarten et al. (1961) was cited by a
researcher publishing in Social Indicators Research. It is, thus, reasonable to conclude that the fields of
gerontology and social indicators research have separate citational origins, and will not influence each
other in any direct sense until they are combined later on in literature reviews.
1990–1999: The emergence of clinical and medical happiness research. Breakthrough for Diener
Starting in 1990, we see a sudden growth in our dataset (see Figure 1, 2). As a consequence, the fields of
gerontology, social indicators, marriage and family, and personality psychology crystallize as competing
centers of gravity (Figure 4). The complete domination of gerontological and geriatric publications is
from now on broken, especially by the emergence of Social Indicators Research, which could be seen
already in Figure 3 in the previous decade.
There are also new clusters arriving from all sides. Our search terms appear also in publications
from medical and clinical sciences. Here we find journals such as Medical Care, where publications
concerning life satisfaction and happiness in relation to chronic disease, injuries and surgery are
published. However, we also find, on the opposite side, the Journal of Consumer Research, in which
articles that measure shopping experiences and consumer product choices in relation to happiness begin to
appear. We may conclude that in the 1990s the central clusters are accompanied by a diverse range of
specialized journals that measure happiness in different ways, for very different reasons.
Figure 4: Development of happiness studies during the period 1990–2009. Upper left: 1990–1994, upper right: 1995–1999, lower left: 2000–
2004, lower right: 2005–2009. Minimum number of documents of a source has been kept to two
On the author level, there is a clear trend throughout the 1990s. Two teams of researchers create three
publications that overshadow much of the landscape, in terms of cited references (Table 2). Ed Diener’s
(1984) Subjective Well-Being is a large review of what the author identifies as the body of scientific work
that has led up to a new scientific concept: “Subjective well-being”. One year later, Diener, together with
Emmons, Larsen, and Griffin, published the article The Satisfaction with Life Scale (1985), which
introduced a new way of measuring life satisfaction. This article, in terms of citations and because of its
similar object of measurement (life satisfaction/satisfaction with life), could be said to outcompete the
Neugarten et al. 1961 Life Satisfaction Index (see Table 2) during the mid-1990s. The third article,
Watson, Clark and Tellegen (1988) defines another important scale, the Positive and Negative Affect
Schedule, which measures affect in a similar way as Bradburn’s Affect Balance Scale (as mentioned
above). Watson et al. will outcompete Bradburn in terms of citations during the 1990s (Table 2). Thus,
during this period, there is a re-shuffling of the most central articles in the field of happiness studies. Even
For each individual cluster map as high resolution picture, see
though the new articles of Diener et al and Watson et al. propose new scales of measurement, they still set
out to measure the same study object (life satisfaction/affect), but with more precise methods.
As shown in Figure 4, the latter half of the 1990s crystallizes in a centripetal movement. The
center of happiness studies is a firm axis that ranges from social psychology, via social indicators
research, to gerontology. From the sides, however, there are new types of research emerging. Journals in
neuropsychiatry, spinal cord rehabilitation, rehabilitation psychology and psychophysiology start to make
an imprint in terms of citations, but they have not yet shaped distinct clusters.
2000–2009: The Diener–Watson dominance and the emergence of the Journal of Happiness
During the first five years, after the turn of the millennium, there is a consolidation of references to
Diener et al. and Watson et al., as described above. Their publications have by now become the “gold
standard” for measuring subjective well-being as they contain the SWLS and PANAS scales, which in
turn have become established methodological tools. When conducting happiness studies, chances are high
that one of the two scales are used. Moreover, there is another wave of growth occurring during the first
decade of the 2000s, in which publications more than double in numbers for the entire field of happiness
studies. Nevertheless, there is also a further diversification of the field: Social Indicators Research is
beginning to detach (Figure 4) from its position between the “personality cluster” (Journal of Personality
and Social Psychology; Personality and Individual Difference) and the “gerontology cluster”
(Gerontologist; Journal of Gerontology Series; International Journal of Aging). In the lower right corner
of Figure 4, this movement clarifies even further, as a new journal appears in close proximity – the
Journal of Happiness Studies.
There are also new clusters. First and foremost, there is a concentration of research emerging
around the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the lower left section of Figure 4. In this
journal, there is a specialized line of research that concerns the problem of life satisfaction among victims
of severe disability, often brain- or spinal cord injuries that result in permanent disability. The
“happiness” aspect of these studies, concerns how patients cope with life, and their strategies for well-
being. Moreover, shown only as peripheral dots in the upper right corner of Figure 4, there is an emerging
cluster around economic research at the turn of the millennium. Economic studies are still not widely
published, but they will emerge from this position in later years.
Moving on to the second half of the first decade of the new millennium, we see the beginning of a
consolidation of the economics cluster in the lower right side of Figure 4. This is the time when
Ecological Economics, Journal of Economic Psychology and Journal of Economic Behavior and
Organization begin to make an imprint in the publication maps. Moreover, Social Indicators Research is
now accompanied by the Journal of Happiness Studies, which was founded in the year 2000 (but only
indexed in the WoS from 2008), and they approximate each other in a distinct spot. There is also a
continued growth in terms of specialized clinical disciplines. Areas such as schizophrenia research,
biological psychiatry and various forms of brain- and neurosciences are appearing, even though they do
not shape their own clusters within happiness studies.
Concerning authors, both Neugarten et al. and Bradburn have disappeared from the top cited
authors (Table 2), and there is a continued domination for Diener et al. and Watson et al. However, there
are two articles that are of special interest in this period: Ryff’s (1989) article “Happiness Is Everything,
or Is It?” and Ryan & Deci’s (2001) “On Happiness and Human Potentials: A Review of Research on
Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-Being” (Table 2). The reason for these new articles to appear on the list of
most cited articles is that they propose a different way of thinking happiness, following Aristotle's notion
of “eudaimonic happiness” (see Aristotle 1991). Here, an alternative conceptualization and
operationalization of human happiness is presented, one that takes personal autonomy, self-acceptance
and positive relations with others into account. Thus, from around 2005 and up until today, there are
competing ways of thinking human happiness among the most cited articles. On the one hand, the
satisfaction with life scales (Diener et al. 1985) and the positive/negative affect measures (Watson et al.
2008) depart in what may be called “hedonic” concept of happiness, where the experience of what makes
life pleasant and unpleasant are at the center of investigation. On the other hand, researchers working with
“eudaimonic happiness” instead tend to shift away from the completely subjective aspect, instead
focusing on the realization of one's true potential and living a life in accordance with one's “true self”.
Happiness studies is, one could say, a divided field in terms of core concepts8.
Contemporary Happiness Studies
So, what is happiness studies today? First of all, it is a field that grows very rapidly. 36 % of the articles
that we extracted from the Web of Science since 1904 were published as late as between 2010 and 2013.
There is a clear indication that this diverse field is indeed very productive. Today, it covers a broad
spectrum of scientific disciplines and areas of study, which can be seen clearly when reading Figure 5
from right to left. First, we encounter what could be labeled as biological, neurological, clinical and
psychiatric journal titles. These studies are often specialized and focus on a specific group of patients
8 In a forthcoming article, we will follow this conceptual controversy further, exploring also how it has
affected the scales of measurement used in happiness studies.
and/or disorders, where happiness measures are integrated into clinical evaluations and assessments of the
efficacy of a particular therapy. Next, we find psychological journals that border with social psychology,
personality studies and gerontology. This section comprises a large body of the citing references, and may
be thought of as one of the mainstreams of happiness studies. In the very center of the figure, we find the
Journal of Positive Psychology, which is rather interesting from an emergence perspective. It was
founded in 2006, but is only indexed in the WoS from 2009.
Still closely related in terms of cited references, the Journal of Happiness Studies and Social
Indicators Research form a gateway to the societal-level studies, which often compare the happiness
levels among nations and cultures. Further along, the economics journals have formed a distinct cluster to
the left extreme, similar as in Figure 4 but now even more distinct. Perhaps, one could soon speak of a
specific happiness economics, influenced by such authors as Daniel Kahneman and Richard Layard.
Figure 5: 2010–2013. Minimum number of documents of a source has been kept to two.
As revealed already in Figure 1, this 3-year period marks a steady growth in absolute numbers of
publications, a continuation of a trend beginning at the turn of the millennium. But, as seen in Figure 5, it
also entails a horizontal growth. Happiness studies has diversified, in terms of journals. Measurements of
happiness have been included in articles published in such diverse areas as library science, economics,
vocational science, gerontology, all forms of psychology, genetics, neuroscience and physical medicine.
On a qualitative level, the various studies found in these disciplines all have quite different connections to
happiness studies. Some of them would not even say they are conducting research in this area, especially
in the medical sciences, where subjective well-being and life satisfaction often are closely related to
specific treatments or therapies.
Conclusion – A “happiness turn”?
Depending on where you are situated in the social-, behavioral- or medical sciences, the field of
“happiness studies” may look very different. The use of scientometric data in general, and cited
references in particular, is a productive way of attempting to define and study this emerging field of
research. We have found that happiness research took off (in the shape of empirical and publishable
studies) in the fields of gerontology and social indicators research. These were the fields of study where
measurements of life satisfaction and positive/negative affect were conducted to tackle the problem of
“successful aging” and how to find relevant indicators of perceived life quality.
During the late 1970s and the 1980s, the difference between the gerontological studies and the
social indicators movement became more defined. Even though both camps explored life satisfaction and
well-being, they drew on slightly different bodies of literature as their main references. Also, during the
mid-1980s, a handful of important articles concerning scales and methods of measurement were
published. These articles would have large impact later on, during the 1990s.
In the 1990s, wider psychological and social psychological research started to emerge, in which
happiness measures were integrated. Also, during this prolific century, clinical and medical studies began
to use measures of happiness, thus widening the field considerably. The key development in the decade
before the turn of the millennium was the widespread acceptance of two standard scales for measuring
subjective well-being: Diener et al.’s (1985) Satisfaction with Life Scale and Watson et al.’s (1988)
Positive and Negative Affect Schedule. These two publications began to dominate the field of happiness
studies, and continue to do so even today. Consequently, the field strove towards a kind of conceptual
unity, where particular common procedures contributed also to a steady expansion of the field.
With the turn of the millennium, and the decade that followed, economists started to conduct
research on the effects of the economy on happiness (and vice versa). Even though the relationship
between income and happiness had been explored earlier (see for example Easterlin 1974), it is during
this time that a citational pattern emerges in the scientific literature. Moreover, this phase also gave birth
to positive psychology and specialized journals, such as the Journal of Happiness Studies and Journal of
Yet, as proposed in the introduction of this article, is it really reasonable to speak of a “happiness
turn” taking place at the turn of the millennium? Many of the influential authors in the field claim that to
be the case. For example, Layard writes that a “new psychology now gives us real insight into the nature
of happiness and what brings it about” (Layard 2005: 6). And Emmons claims that, “[t]he field of positive
psychology, initiated by Martin Seligman in the late 1990s, has begun to mature as a scientific discipline”
(Emmons 2006: 1). This latter quote not only reconstructs the scientific advances to have taken place
further back in time, it also is a case of where a reference functions as a rhetorical “device”, as discussed
in Gilbert (1977). Even a notable critic of happiness research claim that there has been a significant
happiness turn in this period of time (Ahmed 2007; 2010).
Our data suggests that there has indeed been a significant increase in happiness studies
publications over the last decade, a trend that peaked in the period 2010-13, and seems to continue to
expand in contemporary research. The notion of a “happiness turn”, however, implies that there was
another trend or focal point before the turn. Some of the leading authors in the field write in such a key,
arguing that the center of attention has shifted away from purely economic measurements towards
subjective forms well-being and happiness (see Layard 2005). Evaluating such a claim requires a different
methodology than ours. What we are able to show is perhaps not so much a turn, as it is a study in a rapid
diffusion and growth of happiness studies, which appears in heterogeneous and scattered areas of study.
Thus, we suggest that there is not one singular turn to happiness. Rather, measurements of happiness and
well-being may be interpreted as what Bruno Latour calls immutable mobiles (Latour 1999: 306–307;
2013: 77–78). In other words, the methodologies and standardized practices of measuring happiness and
well-being (manifested especially in scales of measurement) have been made plastic enough to travel
between scientific disciplines, reaching further and further into specialized areas of study, without losing
their identity. This way, we may say that happiness studies has a “coverage” across disciplines, without
implying that it necessarily is part of the core research activity. Happiness studies may, on the one hand,
be the very object of study in itself. This is the case when reading articles in for example Journal of
Happiness Studies. However, and equally important for our attempt at studying the emergence the field,
there is on the other hand plenty of research in which measurements of well-being and happiness are
instead auxiliary components of a larger research question.
Perhaps is it then not so much an “happiness turn” that we have rendered visible, but rather the
emergence of a focal point for research, as many different disciplines have turned towards happiness,
especially during the past two decades. Such a turning towards happiness cannot be solely understood
from an internalist perspective on science. The accelerating interest in happiness measurements must
rather be thought of as deeply intertwined with the common production of science and society.
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Table 2: Yearly top cited articles (Note different time periods)