Measuring happiness: a fool’s errand

Why psychologists on the hunt for a 'happiness index' have returned empty-handed.

Lee Rowland

Topics Politics

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‘It was the happiest of times, it was the unhappiest of times.’ Perhaps this is how we will be remembered. Of the people living in Britain today, 93 per cent claim they are either quite happy or very happy (1), yet many thinkers and politicians are working to put joy into people’s hearts (2). And the way to achieve this, according to the UK’s doyen of happiness, Professor Richard Layard of the London School of Economics (LSE), is to make wellbeing the ‘goal of policy; and the progress of national happiness should be measured and analysed as closely as the growth of GNP’ (3). David Halpern, adviser to the prime minister, told the BBC that within the next 10 years the government would be measured against how happy it made everybody (4).

Central to such exhortations is the idea that the happiness of nations must be measured and tracked across time. But measuring happiness is fraught with difficulties. Consider the typical approach of asking someone to rate himself on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the most satisfied) in response to the following question: ‘All things considered, how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your life-as-a-whole now?’ This is the way into someone’s emotional life taken by Ruut Veenhoven from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, who also engineered and maintains the World Database of Happiness (5).

Veenhoven was motivated to construct this database because of an awareness of the fundamental problems posed by happiness research. In the past few decades some 3,000 empirical studies have considered the matter, but the findings are muddled. This is largely due to the massive discrepancies in the type of questions and scales administered; how distinct populations understand the terms and concepts; and general methodological and statistical approaches. Such inconsistencies are a major impediment to integrating the results. Consequently, ‘happiness research has as yet little relevance for major political discussions’ (6).

At the heart of the investigations is the drive to discover the circumstances necessary for making people happier. Subjective ratings of wellbeing do seem to show that people’s scores correlate strongly with other measures of life success and health. But as Veenhoven has noted, correlational studies say little about cause and effect. Surprisingly, socioeconomic status, education, family income, marital status, and religious involvement account for just three per cent of the variation in wellbeing (7).

Daniel Kahneman, the Princeton psychologist and Nobel Laureate who invigorated the measurement of wellbeing in economic circles, has voiced serious misgivings about the application of subjective indicators of happiness. In one paper he concedes that a gross national measure of happiness is ‘overly ambitious in view of present knowledge and the limitations of subjective measures’ (8). Ultimately, the usefulness of subjective scales at the global level may be undermined by idiosyncrasies in the way people remember, conceptualise, compare and adapt.

Philosophers of happiness, such as Dan Haybron writing in the Journal of Happiness Studies, are acutely aware of this possibility: ‘such attitudes [towards life-satisfaction] are appropriately governed by ethical norms and are perspectival in ways that make the relationship between life satisfaction and welfare far more convoluted than we tend to expect.’ (9) Haybron points out that ethical norms of this kind are not distributed randomly throughout cultures (say, fortitude in the working class, optimism in the Americans), the net result of which is to make it very difficult to relate wellbeing back to quality of life across diverse populations.

Will Wilkinson, an analyst at the Cato institute in Washington, DC working on the policy implications of happiness research, is also concerned about the difficulties in understanding the ‘dynamically shifting individual differences at a finer grain of detail than is possible’ (10).

In an effort to circumvent these problems, Kahneman developed a different approach that quantifies how much time people spend doing unpleasant activities (the U-index). In one study involving 909 working women from Texas, Kahneman found that they spend on average 17.7 per cent of their time engaged in dissatisfying activities (11). While this approach says nothing about the degree of happiness of a group or nation, it may be useful for identifying areas of misery in people’s lives (commuting was shown to be the main culprit). Kahneman sagely recognises that ‘many policymakers are more comfortable with minimising a specific concept of misery than maximising a nebulous concept of happiness’ (12). But while to reduce misery is estimable, the desire to eliminate dissatisfaction is ominous. What kind of existence would be complete without dissatisfaction?

Others believe that happiness can be measured in the brain. Such enthusiasts think that activity levels in pleasure centres of the brain might one day provide the best gauge of how happy we are. But this hubris comes at the expense of a poor understanding of contemporary psychology.

First, there are many emotional areas of the brain, and nobody as yet understands how they all interact to give affective colour to our mental lives. Emotional structures are not simply on or off: they are dynamic, and hence prone to myriad fluctuations in relation to thought and perception.

A more potent concern is the discrepancy between consciousness and physiology. Undoubtedly it would be disconcerting to be told that you are actually happier than you feel you are. It is troubling to envisage a world where, despite the public saying that they are dissatisfied with the way of things, public policy is ordained on the basis of neuronal firing patterns.

There are severe economic and practical limitations, too. The purchase and maintenance of the equipment consumes millions of pounds – for each individual scanned, thousands more. This testing must take place in the laboratory, making it impossible to generalise the results to people’s daily lives.

Hence, experts in the field, such as Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory of Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, are mindful of the limitations of their science, recognising that these are ‘mere speculations whether brain responses are repositories of wellbeing over time’ (13).

Relinquishing our individual responsibility to act to create happiness is likely to produce a culture high on expectation, yet beset by apathy. A life of perpetual satisfaction is not the ultimate good nor is happiness the cardinal goal. People wish to be happy for the right reasons, according to their values. Its pursuit is a moral imperative, not a spiritless hedonistic one.

William James, the great psychologist, had the firmest grip: ‘Action may not bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.’

Lee Rowland works as an intern at spiked.

(1) Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a new science (London: Allen Lane 2005) (pp. 13-14)

(2) The leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron told the BBC’s home editor Marc Easton on The Happiness Formula programme: ‘We should be thinking not just what is good for putting money in people’s pockets but what is good for putting joy in people’s hearts.’

(3) See (1)

(4) David Halpern expressed this belief to Mike Rudin, series producer on BBC 2’s The Happiness Formula

(5) The World Database of Happiness

(6) Ibid. In the section on philosophy Veenhoven provides a very useful and interesting overview of the motivations and concerns behind happiness research.

(7) David Lykken & Auke Tellegen, Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon, published in the American Psychological Society journal Psychological Science 2006 Vol. 7

(8) Daniel Kahneman and Alan Krueger, Developments in the measurement of subjective well-being, published in Journal of Economic Perspectives 2006 Vol. 20

(9) Dan Heybron’s paper is forthcoming in Journal of Happiness Studies. Currently it can be found here

(10) See Happiness & Public Policy which is an excellent resource for getting up to speed on the problems of happiness research and the difficulties in applying the results for policy.

(11) See (8)

(12) Ibid p. 22

(13) Richard Davidson, Well-being and affective style: neural substrates and biobehavioural correlates in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (London) 2004 Vol. 359

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Topics Politics


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