Can happiness be measured?

Can you measure your happiness like your temperature?  Is it possible to accurately say who is happier than who?  When I told people I was writing a chapter on measuring happiness, I got skeptical reactions.  A lot of people don’t see happiness as something that can be measured.  They say it’s too abstract, too subjective, too hard to quantify.  So if you’re skeptical, I don’t blame you, but hopefully I can convince you otherwise.

Methods of measuring happiness range from deceptively simple to extremely complex.  The more complex the method, the more accurate the results are.  The simplest way is to just ask people how satisfied they are with their life on a scale of one to ten.  More complex ways range from questionnaires that are 20+ items long, to brain imaging scans using state-of-the-art technology.  In the middle-ground are the ‘life-satisfaction’ questionnaires; these measure the specific definition of happiness described in the last section, and that that’s the definition I’ll be using here.

When we’re in a happy state, it’s something we can feel physically.  Now, we could find a way to measure that physical feeling somehow: maybe with brain scans, heart/pulse rates, or something like that.  We’d then get a nice, objective way of measuring happiness.  But the problem is, there may be a difference between the objective measurement of happiness and your subjective experience of it.

For example, some people are real adrenaline junkies. They love bungee jumping, performing in front of crowds, and diving out of aeroplanes. Others can really do without that kind of thing.  An objective measurement can tell us the status of our physical body, but not necessarily how happy we are with that status.  Imagine believing you are happy but being assured that you are not, or vice versa; this seems OK for something like temperature, but incorrect for happiness.

Therefore any measurement of a person’s happiness has to include their evaluation of their own state- we just need a way to quantify these evaluations.  This is why happiness is measured with questionnaires and scales – you’d miss important information if you measured it only as a physical feeling.

Sources of static when measuring happiness

The way to measure these evaluations is to use a specially designed questionnaire. Going over the process of how these questionnaires is designed is beyond the scope of this book, but it involves starting with lots of potential questions and finding the best combination through many studies and lots of statistical analysis. But once they are made, the problem of accuracy comes up; are people good judges of their happiness?  The problem is a slippery one, because we’re rejecting a purely objective definition of happiness.  We’re in the realm of subjectivity, where happiness cannot be completely separated from peoples’ own standards.

Imagine two completely identical people, in two completely identical alternate universes.  They have the exact same lives, experiences and feelings, in every single way, except one; one of them is more pessimistic in his judgement of his life.  Our subjective measurement would show him as being less happy, but is he really less happy than his alternate self?

In one sense he cannot be- he has the exact same life, experiences the same good emotions, and feels the same amount of pleasure.  On the other hand, if his pessimism means he wants more, shouldn’t that dissatisfaction be included when measuring his happiness?

In other words, shouldn’t people choose their own criteria of what they’re happy with?  They should, but standards can be fickle.  Today I’m happy with my house, tomorrow I want a bigger one.  Maybe the day after that I don’t want a big house anymore.  Our happiness measurement would detect these fluctuations; like static picked up along with the ‘signal’ of happiness we’re trying to tap into.

This is not such a bad thing.  The way we consistently judge our lives affects our feelings of happiness.  If you regularly use a higher standard to judge your situation by than what you have achieved, you’ll get less happy.  This is called negative self-talk and it’s what some types of therapy work at fixing.  Likewise, if you lower your standards of judgement, you’ll tend to get happier with what you have; this is generally known as appreciation or gratitude.

There are other sources of static too, like ‘impression management’.  If someone going on a date asked you for advice, you’d be quite a troublemaker if you suggested they be as unhappy as possible.  Happy, positive people are more attractive, so you might expect people to report a happiness score that they view as being attractive.  This explains why you get higher happiness scores if you do surveys by interview than by post, and even more so if the interviewer is of the opposite sex!

Mood might also cause some static.  Imagine being asked how satisfied you are with your life when you’ve just had the best day of your life, compared with your worst.  You’d probably be rational to a point, because you’re specifically being asked to look at your life overall, but the way your day went would definitely have an impact.

These sources of static cast a shadow of doubt of the measurements.  We need some more objective things to compare our scores with, to make sure that the signal coming through the static is strong enough.

Cleaning up the Signal

To find out how much signal is getting through the static, the questionnaires of happiness must be compared with objective things that already we know are related to happiness.  Because such a large amount of research has been done in this area, I’ll only give a quick overview of this work.

First of all, if you give someone a happiness questionnaire twice, one month apart, the results are very similar. This consistency shows that people don’t just respond randomly, and it suggests there is more to the results than people’s mood at the time of answering. Of course we would not expect the results to be identical, because many things can happen in a month, but we would expect a correlation.

Emotions and feelings are processed in the brain, so that’s another good place to look.  As you probably know, the brain is split up into two hemispheres.  You might not know, that the left hemisphere is associated with positive emotions and feelings, and the right hemisphere with negative ones (to be specific, the left- and right-prefrontal cortices).  If you record brain activity when people watch funny films, the left side lights up; during sad films, the right side activates.  People with injuries to the left side are more likely to become depressed, and people with damage on the right side can actually get an increase in good feelings. So how do happiness questionnaires compare with brain scans?  Well, it turns out that people who score higher on happiness questionnaires actually have more activity in the left hemisphere. (3) So these questionnaires are related in the correct way to brain activation – another sign that they do what they are supposed to.

As mentioned previously, there’s a chance people might lie when completing these questionnaires, and say they’re happier than they are to give a good impression.  This can be tested for by asking friends, family and independent observers to fill out the questionnaire as if they were the person in question.  My friends and family would know if I’m happy, and random people would have some idea.  They wouldn’t get the same exact score as me of course, because they aren’t me (so few of us are in fact).  But for happiness measurements to be taken seriously, they have to correlate with friend and observer reports – and they do.

Another objective thing to compare against is the ultimate symbol of happiness – the smile.  Look at the picture below:

A ‘real’ smile, called a ‘Duchenne’ smile, is where the eyes wrinkle up on the outside along with the smile.  If someone isn’t smiling with the eyes, they’re probably faking it. See the crow’s feet on the guy’s eyes, indicating a real smile. The girl is only smiling with the lips – no crow’s feet = not a real smile.  As you’d expect, people with higher happiness scores tend to give more Duchenne smiles than people with lower scores.

Hey, it works!

Even though it might have seemed far fetched to measure an abstract thing like happiness, with a questionnaire, of all things, there really is a signal coming through the static.  All the evidence points to that signal being happiness; or at least, something it’s logical to label ‘happiness’.  It’s not a perfect method, but the signal to noise ratio is good enough that these questionnaires can be useful.

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