From Comparison to Indices: A disabling perspective on the history of happiness

Y. Söderfeldt, P. Verstraete


Who should be considered the most unhappy, the blind or the deaf? The intensive debate over this issue in the early 19th century is the outset of our study of how during the last two hundred years disability and happiness have become inextricably connected. On the basis of our historical analysis we have identified characteristics that also can be found in current happiness interpretations, namely the persistent role played by activation, professional intervention, and alignment with normative behaviors. In order to highlight this intimate connection between past and present we subsequently focus on the contemporary preoccupation with the happiness of people with disabilities, exemplified by research on the so-called “disability paradox” and the development of happiness indices within the behavioral sciences. Our thesis is that applying perspectives from disability studies to happiness research uncovers processes of exclusion and other modalities of power previously overlooked. In our examples, we recognize a desire to lay bare the inside of disabled people’s minds and impose on them un/happy subjectivities. We furthermore argue that the way we think of, and treat, both disability and happiness, i. e. by systematization and professionalization, belongs to a rationalization process which risks colonizing the emotional realm of disabled people. Thus we suggest a research program that ‘dis/ables’ happiness studies and, aided by historical analysis, reconsiders the emotional dimension of disability.


disability studies; deaf education; blind education; disability history; happiness

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