Social Psychology Spring Semester 2014 Special Assignment 1
Social Construction: Happiness
Srijan R. Shetty
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Department of Computer Science and Engineering,
Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur
Abstract
This paper describes an experiment conducted in Social Psychology class to understand social construction
as a paradigm to comprehend subjective experiences between humans. The objective of this paper is to
highlight how the researcher’s definition of a subjective experience — happiness — undergoes an evolution
over the course of the experiment.
I. Introduction
S
o
cial Construction is a contemporary
paradigm to comprehend subjective ex-
periences. Subjective experience by their
virtue show a lot of variability and contem-
porary methods fail to capture the richness
of these experiences. In social construction,
unlike contemporary methods, the researcher
starts with his own definition of the experience
which gets moulded into something new dur-
ing the course of the experiment.
In this experiment, a class is unknowingly
pushed into the journey of understanding so-
cial construction by experimentation. The re-
sults have been compiled at the end of the
experiment.
II. Methodology
The following section describes the methodol-
ogy which was followed in the experiment.
I. Control
The control of the experiment was established
by asking each of the students to pen down
what happiness meant to each of them. They
were given no a priori information about the
objective of the experiment, in order to ensure
that their definitions were not influenced by
any extraneous factors. The students were ad-
vised to keep this definition until the very end
of the experiment.
II. Dialogical Partnership
The second phase of the experiment, involved
setting up of a dialogical partnership between
pairs of students. The students were given com-
plete freedom to form pairs; they were then
asked to exchange the definitions that they had
penned down. It must be noted that while
most students paired up with friends, some
paired up with complete strangers. The initial
exchange followed by an assessment of how
well they comprehended each other’s defini-
tion.
III. Partial Analysis
In order to broaden the scope of the experi-
ment, the students were asked to form groups
of eight. These groups were then asked to anal-
yse the definitions of the individual members
of the groups and the dialogical partnership
to come up the commonalities and differences
in the definitions of the individual members.
The groups were to also appoint a group leader
who would present a consolidated analysis to
the entire class and compile a document con-
taining the inferences.
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Social Psychology Spring Semester 2014 Special Assignment 1
IV. Individual Analysis
After the presentations, an elaborate discussion
ensued which explained the purpose of all the
exercises. The students were then asked to
analyse each of the nine (the number of groups
were nine) partially analysed data to come up
with a consolidated overall report. The stu-
dents were also asked to report whether or not
their definition of happiness evolved over the
course of this experiment.
III. Analysis
A salient point that I would like to put forth be-
fore I proceed with the analysis is, the parallel I
could draw between the data obtained by social
constructionist approach and the data obtained
by any conventional While at the surface, the
data seems to be discordant, when you move
past the surface cacophony, you start seeking
a beautiful similarity. Even subjective experi-
ences such as happiness, which I vehemently
believed to be a function of various factors like
the individual’s upbringing, socio-economic
status etc., have an underlying uniformity.
The following section describes the simi-
larities and differences that could be clearly
distinguished from the partially analysed data
obtained from the individual groups.
I. Similarities
Relationships
The Partially Analysed Data gives clear evi-
dence that spending quality time with friends
and kin is the most common source of hap-
piness for many. This can be easily seen as a
consequence of our social nature, we like to be
understood by our close ones. From playing a
sport with friends, to sitting and playing poker
with family, watching movies, playing video
games, eating food after a hectic day with you
parents, all are myriad ways in which one
spends quality time with friends and family.
Accomplishments
Evidence suggests that excelling in the endeav-
ours that one participates in makes them happy.
Again, the magnitude of the task shows a lot of
variability: from solving a simple mathematics
problem to cracking a tough examination like
IITJEE, from winning in a video game to win-
ning high stakes poker, the Partially Analysed
Data has it all. A salient point to notice is the
fact that while some people excel for their own
selfish reasons, many excel for their parents or
their near and dear ones for they believe that
their excellence makes their loved ones happy.
Again this was something which I found very
hard to digest because I vehemently believe
that you should pursue any interest only out
of your selfish interest for otherwise, your love
for that interest is a facade. While my inference
may not be true, there is enough evidence to
suggest that being accomplished in life makes
one likeable in social circles; and likeability is
desired by human beings because they want to
belong and not feel ostracised in life.
Satisfaction
Satisfaction as a source of happiness seems
logical, and the Partially Analysed Data clearly
shows that that people are happy if they are
satisfied in their professional or academic life.
What really amused me was the fact while
some people are satisfied with being average
and with a lacklustre life, there are some whose
thirst cannot be satiated even after excelling in
everything they take part in.
Stress free environment
Almost everyone agreed to the fact that they
were happy if they were placed in a stress free
environment where they were free to chose
what they wanted to do: be it slacking off and
sleeping or relaxing by watching a movie or
a TV series, or just free to pursue their hob-
bies in an environment devoid of the anxiety
of quizzes and examinations. This could be
because of the reason that we are better able to
enjoy the activities that we take part in if we
are not anxious and bogged down by the many
fears that we have in life. If there is no stress
we are able to concentrate more at the task at
hand and perform better at it, accomplishing
in it as well as being satisfied with the work
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Social Psychology Spring Semester 2014 Special Assignment 1
that we have done.
II. Differences
Short term vs long term happiness
There were several instances which pointed
out the difference between momentary joy and
long term happiness. Examples included win-
ning in a poker game or video game which
were labelled as momentary joy. What is to be
noted is that in such a distinction of joy and
happiness, we inadvertently make happiness
into an aspiration of how we want out future
to be. And in many sense, this strips down
happiness of its rich meaning because our
goals keep on changing, and we always keep
setting new goals. I personally believe that
distinguishing momentary joy from happiness,
strips down the rich meaning of happiness;
and that happiness is living in the moment.
Individual vs. Collective
The Individual vs. Collective discourse ap-
pears in the Partially Analysed Data in many
different avatars. This particular theme has
been brought to light under different banners
in the Partially Analysed Data : patriotism,
social responsibility, and group victory. This
whole discourse boils down a simple question:
whether the individual thinks of happiness
as a personal construct or that he thinks that
happiness is a shared construct. In the former
case, only a personal achievement can bring
about happiness for the individual while in the
latter, happiness can be induced by any group
feeling as well.
Abstract vs. Concrete
The abstract vs. concrete debate was visible in
the Partially Analysed Data . This particular
point overlaps with almost every other point
made in this discourse for the different themes
as listed in this discourse can be labelled as
abstract or concrete. Many people attributed
happiness to abstract entities like aesthetic
beauty, satisfaction, accomplishment while on
the hand there were quite a few who attribute
happiness to concrete entities like owing a
material object, learning a new skill, eating
good food.
Lifestyle Preferences
Lifestyle preferences could be attributed to
the way the individuals have been brought
up. While some said that a profligate lifestyle
which allowed them to travel, to eat good food
and shop for new clothes and shoes made them
happy, others felt that they found no happi-
ness in such materialistic pursuits. On similar
lines, there were people who believed that they
couldn’t be happy with a mundane stable life
with little or not change and only adventure
could bring them happiness; and there were
people with an antithetical view of happiness.
What this difference proves is the fact, that the
intuitive idea that happiness does have some-
thing to do with the upbringing of the individ-
ual is indeed true.
IV. Individual Analysis
I. Control
The initial definition of happiness that I came
up with was:
Happiness for me revolves
around two extremes, the first is
happiness in solitude and the sec-
ond one is with friends. What I
mean to say that I do not mind be-
ing alone writing poetry, reading
up about something interesting, or
learning a new skill. At the same
time, I do not mind hanging out
with friends and spending some
quality time with them.
II. Dialogical Partnership
In the Dialogical Partnership exercise, I was
fortunate enough to find a friend to pair up
with. This made the entire discourse very easy
for both of us, despite the fact that our defini-
tions of happiness were antagonistic of each
other. While a stress free environment where
Smita could sleep whenever he wanted to, play
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Social Psychology Spring Semester 2014 Special Assignment 1
poker at at lengths defeat people at poker
to be precise without being disturbed, watch
movies and relax made him happy. I preferred
to invest my time in what I believe to be the
pursuit of knowledge: writing poems, reading,
and acquiring new skills. But this did not mean
that we did not have any similarities, both of
us loved spending quality time with friends or
watching a good movies. What confounded
me was the fact that despite having colliding
definitions of happiness, Smita was able to em-
pathize with my definition (which could be
attributed to our closeness).
III. Partial Analysis
The group analysis stage brought to light many
of the shortcomings of the dialogical partner-
ships that were established especially those
between strangers. To list a few:
The strangers had inhibitions while shar-
ing their definitions of happiness, be-
cause they felt that they would be judged.
The members acted as sycophants and
agreed to each others point even if they
did not relate to them.
The pairs who knew each other from be-
fore were better at empathizing with each
others definitions.
The definition was dependent on the con-
text it was asked and the person who
asked the question.
There were certain facets of the defini-
tion of happiness, that strangers could
not share between each other.
Being the group leader I was burdened with
the additional responsibility of compiling the
similarities and the differences of my group.
This gave me time to analyse the data very care-
fully and realize the gaping holes that I had in
my definition of happiness. I could clearly see
that the initial definition that I came up with
was not exhaustive and had some gaping holes
like the fact that
watching TV series, movies and listening
to good music made me happy.
travelling to new places and buying gad-
gets and new shoes also made me happy.
My definition expanded to include mate-
rialistic things gadgets and shoes —, ab-
stract concepts travelling and exploring new
places —, relaxing watching TV series and
listening to music. So the entire exercise, en-
riched my definition of happiness and made
me realize how co-construction could help you
realize more about yourself.
IV. Individual Analysis
The individual analysis made me realize some
clear distinctions between my definition of hap-
piness and the general definition of happiness.
Unlike the general definitions, my desire to
learn something new is motivated completely
by selfish reasons. At the same time I realized
that the its the details and little things that mat-
ter more to me when it comes to happiness.
Being alone and spending time with friends
at first seem to be antagonistic to each other
but boil down to the fact that I like living in
the moment, something which I could not have
concluded without the help of this experiment.
V. Unanswered Questions
There are many unanswered questions that
need to be addressed by further experimenta-
tion:
How does the definition of happiness of an in-
dividual change over time? Is there something
fundamental in the definition that remains constant
or can it alter completely?
Experimentation is a bit difficult in this par-
ticular case because the studies will last for
years. But, it can be interesting if we can know
about the nature of happiness in individuals
over time.
How does one cope with a constraint which can
potentially curb their happiness? Does one adapt or
perish?
A particular example of such a situation is
when one is faced with the harshities of life
like sudden unemployment, how do they cope
with such a situation.
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Social Psychology Spring Semester 2014 Special Assignment 1
VI. Conclusion
This experiment started off as a forced exercise
and in the end lead to a self realization about
the nature of happiness. In retrospect, I would
have never been able to realize the many facets
of the definition of happiness if it weren’t for
this experiment. Also. I’ve come to the con-
clusion that subjective experiences evolve with
time and we imbibe a lot of the qualities that
we see around ourselves.
As a consequence of this experiment, I have
been trying to see whether some of the popu-
lar themes which came up in the differences
could somehow make me happy in a different
context.
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