Wikipedia is a lot more than its most common use as a repository of basic information about famous people, historical events, and obscure terms. Its editors and writers must attempt to answer questions that have confounded history’s greatest philosophers, like “What is ‘happiness,” all while accounting for input from the entire world.
If thousands of years of philosophy have failed to come up with conclusive definitions, can we expect a bunch of random people on the internet to do any better?
The earliest Wikipedia page on “happiness,” from January 2003 suggests that we cannot. It read, in full:
Happiness is the state of being happy.
This is the kind of empty statement that will get you thrown out of Philosophy 101. Today, however, the definition is much more thoughtful and nuanced, and serves as an introduction to theories of happiness, providing links to other relevant Wikipedia pages:
Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. Happy mental states may also reflect judgements by a person about their overall well-being. A variety of biological, psychological, economic, religious and philosophical approaches have striven to define happiness and identify its sources. Various research groups, including positive psychology and happiness economics are employing the scientific method to research questions about what “happiness” is, and how it might be attained.
The most amazing thing about the entry is not how useful or detailed it is, however, but how it came to be. This Wikipedia definition is the result of nearly 6,000 edits by over 3,000 users (including some bots) to the page. In this way, Wikipedia understands something that most philosophers after Socrates didn’t—definitions are not static, and cannot be perfected and finalized. They must be constantly challenged, updated, reverted, and discussed. Wikipedia is like a Socratic dialogue on a massive scale.
To understand how the definition of an essential but abstract concept went from a throwaway truism to a carefully worded introduction, I downloaded, read, and analyzed all of the Wikipedia revisions on “happiness” over the course of 14 years. The journey is not pretty—the page endures a continuous barrage of hate speech, vandalism, assertions that happiness is not real, or more sorrowfully, that it is unknown to the person making the edit. This reveals that the process of defining something like “happiness” is even more important than the definition itself.
“Happiness” at a glance
Of the close to 6,000 revisions of the “happiness” page, only a handful are meaningful changes to the introductory paragraph, which is responsible for briefly defining the concept. The rest are either changes to other parts of the page or what could broadly be called “vandalism”—everything from putting “happiness is Kayla” to replacing the whole article with the word “eggs” repeated over and over.
Relative to other pages, “happiness” is on the high end in terms of the number of times it’s been edited. It is a bit outside the 1,000 most-edited articles, which have tens of thousands of edits. The overall average for Wikipedia is in the low hundreds. “Happiness” has about the same number of edits as “love” and “Alan Turing,” many more than “sadness” and “Kublai Khan,” and quite a bit fewer than “World War II.” In terms of traffic, the page is viewed on par with similar concepts, and also with somewhat obscure but still quite famous people (I have added philosopher of happiness Amartya Sen for comparison).
The evolution of a definition
From its original statement that “happiness is the state of being happy,” the definition plods forward slowly. By 2006, around the 700th revision, Wikipedians monitoring the happiness page were battling near-daily vandalism to preserve a definition only slightly more developed than that one. The only meaningful additions at this point are a list of feelings associated with happiness, and a list of feelings not associated with it.
The vandalism includes obvious stuff like “when death happens, woot!!!!” (see above), cursing, general immaturity, and biased attempts at promoting some philosopher or another. But there is also just truly unique oddness, like this rant:
It’s not all juvenile, though. A sort of ideological war begins in Oct. 2007, between editors with different ideas about which school of thought should be considered most important on the subject of happiness. Within just three edits, the page starts out with the Greek concept of eudaimonia (usually translated as “flourishing”); then it changes to the Buddhist “eightfold path“; and finally, to biological measures of well-being. This is one of the earliest instances of further disagreements over how “scientific” the happiness page should be—whether it should emphasize philosophical and religious definitions or more quantitative ones.
Again, this ideological back-and-forth happens on top of tremendous amounts of vandalism. And this was 2007, the peak of the internet’s hateful gay jokes era.
The reintroduction of a broad definition, unconnected to some particular school of thought, finally happens in November, 2007.
Refining the crowd
At this point, over four years in, the definition is still sorely lacking. Aside from a lot of stuff about sex, though, something interesting starts to happen around this time. Instead of just undoing vandalism, the definition starts to get contributions that are well-intentioned, but not very useful. This kind of thing is harder for an editor to feel confident reversing than “eggs eggs eggs eggs.”
A good example is this addition from early 2008, which basically does a poor job of saying “happiness cannot be defined” with unnecessarily fancy vocabulary, misspelling many words along the way.
This odd, fatalistic addition sticks around for months. It is taken seriously enough that its misspelling of “synonymous” is fixed a couple weeks later. Yet another empty statement is appended to it after a few months.
It is at points like these that Wikipedia’s model of ever-changing, Socratic definitions shows both its strengths and weaknesses. The new additions have made the definition worse. It is now confusing, unclear, and mostly serves to reject any definition at all. If the page had been written by a one intelligent person, it’s likely these additions wouldn’t have been included.
But because the definition is dynamic, no mistake is permanent. Progress finally comes from the user DoctorW, whose username, he says on his Wikipedia page, “references his PhD in developmental psychology.” DoctorW has made over 20 significant edits to the Happiness page. He deletes the throwaway sentence about “activities and objects one may enjoy,” and reduces the importance of the “synonymous” line by putting it parentheses. DoctorW also explains his actions by commenting on the change, “Removed statement which adds nothing.”
The throwaway statement, as well as the claim that happiness is also called “felicity,” is excised at the end of May by another user. “Got rid of some clutter in the intro,” he explains.
Outright vandalism is easily reverted in a matter of minutes, but it takes months and an expert Wikipedian like DoctorW to remove one not-great line. This is part of what makes defining a subjective concept like “happiness” on Wikipedia more like a Socratic dialogue, and less like one person writing it alone. Many of Socrates’ debates end with total confusion—nobody really knows what to think about “virtue” or “piety” or whatever is being discussed. That is, the result may not be authoritative, but it does incorporate the views of everyone involved. The line about a “synonymous definition” did have a point to make, and the point was convincing for a while.
Love and Wikipedia
A definition of “happiness” should not list examples of things that make people happy, but must say what all of these examples have in common. That said, it is essential to keep the examples in mind when thinking about what the general definition is. This is something that Wikipedia does better than any other resource in history, because in addition to editors fine-tuning the definition, the revisions show people sharing their experiences of the concept itself.
This is especially true on the “happiness” page, which is full of examples of people actually declaring to the world what actually makes them happy. Many of these are childish.
But others are heartfelt, with Wikipedia serving as a kind of last-resort attempt to publicize one’s feelings. There are many more like the declaration above that “happiness is Kayla.”
It may be an expression of love.
An affirmation of a relationship.
A political stance.
A declaration of religious dedication.
Or the fear of losing happiness.
Reading through the revisions, it can be hard to see such feelings deleted and replaced with impersonal abstractions like “well-being” and “contentment.” Yet these examples inform the abstraction, and sometimes make their way in. On September 16, 2009, one Wikipedia user decides that “love” should be included in the list of feelings that make someone happy, and it remains for a year and a half.
From definition to introduction
Finally, in October 2008, we get the main feature of the current introductory paragraph: It is not so much an attempt to conclusively define “happiness” as it is a reference point for various fields of study that have something to say about the concept.
There is then a prolonged period of derailments about, but not limited to, drugs, sex, “your mom,” cheese, “gay homo life,” Melissa, “CHOCOLATE!!!,” God, The Beatles, “Bryan” who is “amazing at life while david sucks,” and “Maria Smith,” as well as the assertion that “Happiness does not exist and there is only pain in the world.”
In the eight years since that change, there are really only four significant changes made to the definition. The first is part of the science-versus-philosophy debate mentioned earlier—an editor rearranges the fields of study because, as he or she says on the article’s discussion page, “There was too much emphasis on religion in the previous structure of the article and not enough focus on the scientific composition of happiness itself.” (Of course, this decision can be challenged.)
Next, a year later, another editor removes the list of happy feelings, replacing them with just “positive emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.”
After another year, references to psychological and scientific means of understanding happiness are added.
Finally, references to happiness as well-being and the field of happiness economics were added last year.
And that is the definition as it stands today. The page continues to be dynamic, but the introduction has not changed in nearly a year. That is in no small part because the page was given “semi-protected” status in 2011, which makes it impossible for unregistered or unconfirmed users from changing it. (Socrates would probably have approved of that, as he only ever argued with fellow aristocrats, and in The Republic, Plato warns against the dangers of giving the masses too much power.)
There is no abstract definition that can perfectly capture what happiness is to all people, all the time. The closest thing I’ve seen, though, is the full history of this Wikipedia page leading up its current point. It contains both vigilant efforts to succinctly characterize the concept in the face of vandalism, but also people telling us why they are happy, what would make them happy, and even that they think happiness is a useless concept. The real definition isn’t gleaned from the resulting entry, but instead the process.