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The Economics of LGBTQ+ Inclusion & an Interview with Prof. Veenhoven on Happiness Research

On November 10th 2021 we had the opportunity to host the “Economics of LGBTQ+ Inclusion” event in association with Erasmus Pride. We were honored to have Prof. Ruut Veenhoven present his research on transgender happiness as well as Prof. Shuai Chen share his research on same-sex marriage. This was followed by a Q&A session with the audience on the respective topics.

Prof. Shuai Chen talked about his paper “Symbolism matters: The effect of same-sex marriage legalization on partnership stability” in which he concludes that for both females and males there is a significant effect of getting married on their partnership stability. However, this effect cannot be explained by the potential divorce costs alone, which shows the strong symbolic effect of marriage in maintaining partnerships.

In the context of this event we also had the unique opportunity of a short interview with Prof. Ruut Veenhoven, about his paper “Happiness in Transgender People”. Prof. Veenhoven is the director of the “World Database of Happiness” which stores results of empirical research on happiness.

According to Prof. Veenhoven’s research, transgender people are on average 20% less happy than comparable cisgender in contemporary Western countries. Furthermore, it is stated that the dispersion of happiness across transgenders is very high, meaning that they tend to be either very unhappy or happy. Therefore, this paper addresses certain ways of living more in accordance with the experienced gender identity and what effects those ways could potentially have on happiness. The main focus of research on this topic so far has been on medical-sex reassignment. Amongst others, it is concluded that surgical sex-reassignment tends to be followed by a rise in happiness.

Professor Veenhoven, you are a pioneer on the scientific study of happiness and have contributed a lot to a renewed focus on happiness as an objective for public policy. Are there any general rules or findings in regards to happiness that you can share with us?

Well, if you define happiness as life satisfaction it is well measurable, however, if you think of happiness as a good life, you will never agree on what a good life is. Therefore, social scientists focus on happiness in the sense of life satisfaction. Contrary to what you might expect when you read about all the misery in the newspapers, it appears that life satisfaction is pretty high in the Netherlands and in other Western countries. Furthermore, we can say that average happiness is gradually increasing in most Western nations.

You will be giving a presentation about “Happiness in Transgender People” shortly, what was the motivation behind this research, respectively the importance of this topic?

The main reason was that I have a grandson who is a transman, which made me aware of the issue. For my World Database of Happiness I gather happiness research from all sources and I had seen some studies on transgender people, so I started collecting more of them to get a view on the present state of knowledge on this topic, I do this together with my grandson.

Picking up on your work regarding numerous studies on happiness, you have been the director of the “World Database of Happiness” since 1984, where amongst others the data reported in your paper “Happiness in Transgender People” was drawn from. What is this database exactly and how is it structured?

It’s what I call a “findings archive”, it is a tool for facilitating the accumulation of knowledge on happiness. We tend to think that the body of knowledge grows automatically when new research findings reach the ‘academic forum’, but it is not that simple. There are lots of publications using different indicators in different languages and if you really want to accumulate research you should first describe the findings in the same format and the same technical language. That is what we do. We summarize research findings on standardized electronic ‘finding pages’. For example, there is a study that compared happiness across age in Ireland. Then we make a new page in the “World Database of Happiness” and say, this is the study, age was measured in this way, happiness was measured in this way, and this was the result, which could be for instance that we see a linear relationship.

So this page is then part of the database. Today the "World Database of Happiness” consists of around 25,000 of these electronic finding pages. These pages are sorted by subject and one of those subjects is transgender people, the other subjects include factors like whether you are married or not, whether you are a student or not, where you live or your health. Illness is typically not good for your happiness, but we also measure what kind of illness hurts most in that relationship.

In your paper you claim that “Sex-Reassignment tends to be followed by a rise in happiness”, however this happiness then gradually decreases again to the respective base-line level of happiness in the next five years. What implications does that have on the decision of surgical sex-reassignment?

Yes, a few studies, the longest one was for five years, indicate that. It appears that first you have made the transition, which results in an increased happiness, then you meet reality again and your happiness goes down. However, on the other hand, when age proceeds transgenders get happier on average, which is actually also true for other sexual minorities. Combining these findings, I guess that in the long run transgenders will get happier after medical sex-reassignment, however, it is not yet really documented in a long-term follow up study.

Speaking of follow-up studies, you mention several areas that need to be further researched in this regard in your paper, such as measures of wellbeing, social gender transitions, the research design in general and the aspects of sex-reassignment. Do you consider certain aspects of this more urgent than others?

What I think is the most urgent, is what is most missing in research, which is the social transitions that most transgender people undergo. Actually, only a fraction of transgenders had a medical sex-reassignment. Most deal with the gender incongruence they experience in other ways such as remain in the closest for the rest of their life, do periodical crossdressing or sometimes change their name. The important question is what way of dealing with being a transgender works best for what kind of people. That question has not been addressed yet, because the research effort has been very much focused on the medical interventions, which is paid from public funds and of course needed justification. So these doctors were very keen on doing research, but sadly enough that research misses most transgender people.

Lastly, you also talk about policy implications of this paper, which include providing care for gender dysphoria, combatting discrimination and developing more knowledge on this topic. How does your research facilitate the process of policy implementation in general?

Well, I think there is a strong and very well-organized transgender lobby. So if I bring the data, they will bring these to the attention of policy makers and press for action on that basis.

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