If You’re Happy and You Know It, Take A Survey

How Can We Most Effectively Measure Happiness?

John Stuart Mill famously wrote, “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.” Ask yourself to put a metric on it, and it’s even worse. And yet we do need measurements of happiness, for all sorts of reasons. If nothing else, we need to fend off social policies that promote misery instead of well-being. So then it’s just about finding a way to put some numbers on it. In advance of “Does Happiness Keep the Doctor Away?”, a Zócalo event, we asked several people in the feel-good business to weigh in on the following question: How should we most effectively measure happiness?

Carol Graham

We must make it a measure that’s meaningful to the average person

Happiness is increasingly in the media. Yet it is an age-old topic of inquiry for psychologists, philosophers, and even the early economists (before the science got dismal). The pursuit of happiness is even written into the Declaration of Independence (and into the title of my latest Brookings book, I might add). Public discussions of happiness rarely define the concept. Yet an increasing number of economists and psychologists are involved in a new science of measuring well-being, a concept that includes happiness but extends well beyond it.

Those of us involved focus on two distinct dimensions: hedonic well-being, a daily experience component; and evaluative well-being, the way in which people think about their lives as a whole, including purpose or meaning. Jeremy Bentham focused on the former and proposed increasing the happiness and contentment of the greatest number of individuals possible in a society as the goal of public policy. Aristotle, meanwhile, thought of happiness as eudemonia, a concept that combined two Greek words: “eu” meaning abundance and “daimon” meaning the power controlling an individual’s destiny. Using distinct questions and methods, we are able to measure both. We can look within and across societies and see how people experience their daily lives and how that varies across activities such as commuting time, work, and leisure time on the one hand, and how they feel about their lives as a whole—including their opportunities and past experiences, on the other. Happiness crosses both dimensions of well-being. If you ask people how happy they felt yesterday, you are capturing their feelings during yesterday’s experiences. If you ask them how happy they are with their lives in general, they are more likely to think of their lives as a whole.

The metrics give us a tool for measuring and evaluating the importance of many non-income components of people’s lives to their overall welfare. The findings are intuitive. Income matters to well-being, and not having enough income is bad for both dimensions. But income matters more to evaluative well-being, as it gives people more ability to choose how to live their lives. More income cannot make them experience each point in the day better. Other things, such as good health and relationships, matter as much if not more to well-being than income. The approach provides useful complements to the income-based metrics that are already in our statistics and in the GDP. Other countries, such as Britain, have already begun to include well-being metrics in their national statistics. There is even a nascent discussion of doing so here.

Perhaps what is most promising about well-being metrics is that they seem to be more compelling for the average man (or woman) on the street than are complex income measures, and they often tell different stories. There are, for example, endless messages about the importance of exercising for health, the drawbacks of smoking, and the expenses related to long commutes. Yet it is likely that they are most often heard by people who already exercise, don’t smoke, and bicycle to work. And exercise does not really enter into the GNP, while cigarette purchases and the gasoline and other expenses related to commuting enter in positively. If you told people that exercising made them happier and that smoking and commuting time made them unhappy (and yes, these are real findings from nationwide surveys), then perhaps they might listen?

Carol Graham is Leo Pasvolsky Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, College Park Professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Bonn, Germany.

Christian Kroll

Just do as Aristotle did

There are basically two ways to measure the well-being, or happiness, of individuals, regions, and entire nations. The first is to gather a group of experts in a room and let them draw up a list of what they think makes up “the good life.” That list is likely to include desirable things like a high income, good health, high education levels, access to parks and green spaces, and a low unemployment rate. Then, you examine to what extent countries or individuals measure up to that pre-defined ideal. In recent years, this “objective indicators” approach to measuring well-being has guided policy in various ways. The United Nations Development Program has been using the Human Development Index to assess nations according to their performance in the areas of national income, education, and health since 1990.

A second way to measure happiness has gained more prominence only in recent years: asking people directly how they are doing. This approach—today known as “subjective well-being”— goes back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and today is entering the world of public policy.

Prime Minister David Cameron recently commissioned the Office for National Statistics to put in place new measures of national well-being in order to gauge the state of the nation. In addition to using objective indicators, they will ask 200,000 Britons to answer the following questions each year with answers on a scale of 0-10:

1) Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
2) Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
3) Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?
4) Overall, to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

These four questions provide a very good way of capturing four different aspects of subjective well-being and are so far the benchmark for doing this kind of exercise on a national scale. The first question generates a cognitive evaluation of how one’s life is going at the moment. The second and third questions capture the affective aspect of one’s well-being in both a positive (“happy”) and a negative (“anxious”) dimension. Finally, a fourth question taps into what Aristotle called “eudaimonia”—the ability to lead a flourishing life.

Dr. Christian Kroll is a Research Fellow at Jacobs University and the University of Bremen, Germany. (His publications on happiness and other topics are available at www.christiankroll.eu).

Nic Marks

We must create multiple measures, but accept imperfection

Let’s be clear straight away. You can create measures of people’s happiness but you can never precisely measure human happiness. How could it be possible to capture the full complexity of our experiences in a few numbers? However, it is certainly possible to create good measures that provide useful insights.

All of these measures are based on a pretty obvious fact: if you want to know how happy someone is, you had better start by asking them. Psychologists and social scientists use structured survey interviews to achieve this in a systematic way. The main issues and debates revolve not around the contact methodologies but instead the precise questions that are asked.

Basically there are three ways of considering happiness and well-being (the term more used in public policy). They are:

1. Do you feel happy? Measures of people’s emotional experience
2. Are you happy with your life? Measures of people’s assessment of their overall lives.
3. Are you living happily? Measures of people’s capabilities and functionality.

In our experience working in the UK and international policy arena over the last ten years, we have come to the conclusion that it is best to include all three approaches. Each gives slightly different information and together they give a more complete picture of people’s experience of life. Not everyone agrees with us, of course, and the UK Government in its endeavor to measure national well-being only really collects data on the first two. However, we feel it is missing out on useful insights that would arise from looking at people’s sense of autonomy, the strength of their relationships as well their sense of purpose in life. Certainly, when we work with organizations measuring their employees’ happiness we find these sort of factors to be highly influential on people’s happiness at work. If you want to see what I mean by these more holistic measures you can freely try our happiness at work survey and get instant feedback on your happiness at work.

In conclusion I would suggest that the best way to measure happiness is to use multiple indicators that form a more complete picture though we have to have some humility about the fact we will never create a perfect measure.

Nic Marks is the founder of the centre for well-being, new economics foundation, London. Take the happiness survey at www.happinessatworksurvey.com.

David Bartram

It depends on what we want to do with the measure

Deciding how to measure happiness requires knowing what will be done with the data, what its purpose is. If we want data on happiness because we want to compare happiness levels in different countries, then we’d have to be wary of conventional surveys—but surveys might produce quite good data for learning about happiness within one country.

Implicitly, when thinking about “measuring happiness,” many people are probably interested in knowing why some individuals are happier than others (perhaps because they want to figure out how they can raise their own happiness). For this purpose, there are advantages in using a single survey question such as, “Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?” In surveys using questions of this sort (e.g. the European Social Survey), respondents simply choose a number from zero to ten—yielding data that can be analyzed in some powerful ways. Data of this sort are by no means perfect—there are some well-known biases and distortions—but then all data have limitations of some sort.

Researchers have been developing alternate methods such as time-use diaries that include respondents’ sense of how happy they were when engaged in specific activities. There are also more “qualitative” approaches that aim for greater depth than a conventional survey can offer. While these methods have their own limitations, in the end it is useful to have a variety of measurement approaches, rather than expecting that a “best” type will give us everything we need.

David Bartram is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Leicester. His current research explores the connection between international migration and happiness; his next book is Key Concepts in Migration Studies.

Carolina Izquierdo

Account for different versions of happiness, while keeping in mind what’s universal across cultures

In our book Pursuits of Happiness: Well-Being in Anthropological Perspective, Gordon Mathews, our contributors, and I seek to find the best ways to measure happiness and make cross-cultural comparisons. However, we prefer talking about “well-being” rather than “happiness.” Happiness is a distinctive part of well-being, the most essential part; but well-being is more than that. Well-being connotes being well psychologically, physically, socio-economically, and, culturally: it is all these things working together. We define well-being as:

“an optimal state for an individual, community, society, and the world as a whole.” It is conceived of, expressed, and experienced in different ways by different individuals and within the cultural contexts of different societies: different societies may have distinctly different, culturally shaped visions of well-being. Nonetheless, well-being bears a degree of commonality due to our common humanity and interrelatedness over space and time. Well-being is experienced by individuals—its essential locus lies within individual subjectivity—but it may be considered and compared interpersonally and interculturally, since all individuals live within particular worlds of others, and all societies live in a common world at large.

Happiness is a difficult term to discuss because it is ultimately subjective—who but a given individual can say whether she is happy or not? There are numerous tomes to be found on “happiness,” “the pursuit of happiness,” “the history of happiness,” and “the science of happiness,” teaching how to become happy. Some of these books are very informative, based on evidence from the research of psychologists and economists and other experts, but most more or less share a common misunderstanding. They assume that there is a single “pursuit of happiness.” Happiness is not one thing; it means different things in different places, different societies, and different cultural contexts.

There is no unambiguously single pursuit of happiness—rather, there are multiple “pursuits of happiness.” Beyond this, in English as well as a number of other languages, what exactly happiness refers to between the transient and the permanent is unclear. In English, enquiries into happiness may for some evoke thoughts of a good meal, for others a nice car, for others a good marriage, and for others a good relationship with God. These different forms of happiness are not the same thing, despite being covered by a common term, and the same is the case for the equivalent to happiness in languages beyond English, although they may slice up the domain of happiness in different ways.

Underlying this is the fact that we are all human, sharing a broadly common physical and genetic makeup, and on that basis experiencing the world in broadly common ways. Although there are exceptions in various places and times and situations, by and large human beings the world over have preferred love over hate within their particular human group, freedom from pain over pain, and meaning over meaninglessness. Beneath all the cultural diversity in happiness, there is a stratum of human commonality.

Anthropology as a discipline, with its methodologies and the goal of a socio-cultural contextualizing, can enable us to make sense of how people in different societies feel about their lives and capture the variety and richness of what it means to be happy and well in different cultural contexts. This richness can serve as an empirical antidote to the straitjackets of comparison adhered to by some other disciplines, such as economists and psychologists, which more or less insist on a common standard of measurement for all societies. Statistical measures of well-being are not inherently flawed, but they are inherently incomplete: each society has its own unique cultural context. Economists and policy specialists may explore well-being through statistical measures such as per capita income and life expectancy while psychologists may measure well-being through surveys asking people to rate their satisfaction with life on a numerical scale, yet happiness and well-being are fundamentally culturally shaped and therefore people may not even feel comfortable stating their levels of happiness to others (as is required in surveys and questionnaires). Detailed knowledge of a given society’s particularity is absolutely essential if we are to understand well-being in that society.

In our book we suggest four dimensions for the understanding of happiness and well-being. There is a physical dimension of well-being, involving how individuals conceive, perceive, and experience their bodies in the world. There is an interpersonal dimension of well-being, involving how individuals conceive, perceive and experience their relation with others. There is an existential dimension to well-being, involving how individuals comprehend the values and meanings of their lives. These three dimensions are structured by a fourth dimension, involving how national institutions and global forcesshape how well-being is conceived, perceived and experienced among individuals in different societies. By providing a specific analytic focus on a particular dimension of well-being rather than on the concept as a whole in all its breadth, we have the basis for a cross-cultural comparative schema of well-being, through which aspects of well-being within particular societies can be more fully analyzed and understood.

And indeed, why not embark upon such an investigative path? In an increasingly globalizing world, when we are all ever more in each other’s faces and lives, ethnographically-informed “soft comparison” of societies as to well-being becomes increasingly plausible, and increasingly necessary. All of these dimensions are perceived through a prism of culture, which shapes the apprehension of all four dimensions in any given society and thus we can arrive at a fuller understanding of the multiple ways in which we might live and live well.

Carolina Izquierdo is currently a Visiting Scholar at UCLA. She has published an edited volume on well-being titled Pursuits of Happiness: Well-being in Anthropological Perspective.