Measuring Happiness

As Dr. Martin Seligman, former President of the American Psychological Association, was saying, for a very long time, „psychology was half-baked. The baked part was the alleviation of suffering and misery (meaning depression, suicide, panic, drug addiction, schizophrenia), the unbaked part, the missing part, was a psychology of well-being.”Abe Maslow tried to do it in the 1960s, but it was only in the 1990s that a psychology of happiness started to see the light by building:

  • a theory of well-being. All the theories that psychology had were about ill-being, about what was wrong.
  • ways to measure well-being
  • interventions to increase well-being.

Other scientific disciplines were then put to the service of happiness which is today known as the science of happiness.

Defining happiness

According to the dictionary, happiness is “a state of well-being and contentment” (Merriam-Webster, 2018). Words like joy, satisfaction, and laughter are often used in relation to happiness.

Most experts characterise subjective well-being as covering a number of different aspects of a person’s subjective state (Diener et al., 1999; Kahneman, Diener and Schwarz, 1999). However, there are debates about what elements should be included. For example, some analysts, such as Kahneman and Krueger (2006), focus primarily on the hedonic aspect of subjective experience, while others, such as Huppert et al. (2009), opt for a definition that includes measures of good psychological functioning as well as purpose in life.

In her book, The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside states that: happiness is “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile”.

Challenges in measuring happiness

Happiness tends to be a highly subjective topic. This is why different available instruments measure happiness in many ways and also look at various factors that contribute to happiness.

There are voices arguing that mapping subjective well-being is impossible, that instruments that we have today are not precise enough and that self-reporting is too… subjective to be reliable. But in his book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert, social psychologist and professor at Harvard University, has an interesting approach of the problem. He propose to take into account three premises.

First, in an ideal world, we should have a perfectly reliable instrument in order to measure happiness, which we don’t. On the other hand, all the tools used by science – chronometers, thermometers, barometers, spectrometers and so on – are not perfect either. This is the reason why governments and universities are investing huge amounts of money to perfection them. So, instead of complaining about the imperfection of our tools, we should just accept it and work with it.

Secondly, among all the tools that we have at our disposal to measure subjective experience, the sincere self-report in real time is the least imperfect way of measuring happiness. There are other tools that may seem more accurate, more scientific – electromyography, polygraphs, MRI etc. But one thing everyone seem to forget is that the only reason we are relating all these body indicators to happiness is because people state that they are happy…

Third, the imperfection of the instruments is a crucial problem if we don’t take it into consideration. But since we know it and eliminate the potential sources of error, we can deal with it. Here comes what in statistics is called the law of big number. The measuring of happiness is difficult because we cannot count on the objectivity of the self-assessment which can be influenced by a tone of reasons. But when it comes to thousand or millions of people answering the same to one question, then the probable idiosyncrasy is evened out and the answer is more likely to reflect the reality. The probability that everyone is mistaken about the way they feel is near to zero.

That being said, there are a lot of ways to measure happiness.

Measuring happiness through biological factors

Neurotransmitters and hormones. Mark Holder focuses on studying happiness by looking at different biological indicators. In his laboratory, they take samples of saliva and urine from the participants so they can study changes in neurotransmitters and hormones.

Electrical activity of the brain and blood pressure. There are different techniques that allow to measure the electrical activity and the blood pressure in different regions of the brain, as the prefrontal cortex left and right which tend to be related to positive, respectively negative emotions.

  • Electroencephalography – EEG is an electrophysiological monitoring method to record electrical activity of the brain (Niedermeyer E.; da Silva F.L., 2004). Clinically, EEG refers to the recording of the brain’s spontaneous electrical activity over a period of time, as recorded from multiple electrodes placed on the scalp.
  • Polygraphs, popularly referred to as the lie detector test, is a device or procedure that measures and records several physiological indicators such as blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity while a person is asked and answers a series of questions (J P Rosenfeld, 1995). The score of those indicators are evolving when the person is experiencing a strong emotion, as Daniel Gilbert is saying in his aforementioned book.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a medical imaging technique used in radiology to form pictures of the anatomy and the physiological processes of the body. MRI scanners generate images of the organs in the body.

Face skeletal muscles. The electromyography (EMG) is an electrodiagnostic medicine technique for evaluating and recording the electrical activity produced by skeletal muscles (Gary Kamen, 2004). It can for example measure electric signals of the zygomaticus major which raises the corners of the mouth when a person smiles. Recent research suggests that smiling in which the muscle around the eye contracts, raising the cheeks high (Duchenne smiling), is uniquely associated with positive emotion.”

Blinking. Even a clock can be used as a tool to measure happiness as people blink slowly when they are happy and quicker when they are happy. (Larsen, R. J., & Fredrickson, B. L., 1999).

Measuring happiness through self-report

The most common way that researchers assess happiness is through self-reports. A great number of measures for happiness are self-report assessments.

These self-assessments are created in a scientific manner through research, testing, and norming. The items are often tested on sample populations and the assessment is further studied and refined to ensure that it actually tests what it intended to test.

The manner of how these surveys assess happiness can greatly differ from each other. Some assessments are lengthy with different types of questions while others are so short you can possibly memorize them. One thing these happiness surveys have in common is that they aim to help identifying what happiness looks like for the person who is taking it.

There are now many questionnaires that are widely used by academics and scientific researchers to assess happiness levels across the globe. Here are some of the most important:

  • The Panas Scale (Positive and Negative Affect Schedule): is a self-report questionnaire that consists of two 10-item scales to measure both positive and negative affect. Each item is rated on a 5-point scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (very much). The measure has been used mainly as a research tool in group studies, but can be utilised within clinical and non-clinical populations (Watson, David; Clark, Lee A.; Tellegen, Auke, 1988).
  • The Oxford Happiness Inventory is a good way to get a snapshot of the current level of happiness (M. Argyle and Peter Hills, 2002). There are 29 statements about happiness, some phrased positively, others negatively. Each item is rated on a 6-point scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree).
  • Subjective Happiness Scale (Lyubomirsky, S. & Lepper, H. S., 1999) is a 4-item scale designed to measure subjective happiness. Each of item is completed by choosing one of 7 options that finish a given sentence fragment. The options are different for each of the four questions.
  • Satisfaction With Life Scale (Diener, E., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., & Griffin, S., 1985) is a 5-item scale designed to measure global cognitive judgements of one’s life satisfaction (not a measure of either positive or negative affect). Participants indicate how much they agree or disagree with each of the 5 items using a 7-point scale.

 Measuring the happiness from individuals to organisations

Happiness can be measured not only at the individual level but also at the level of the organisation. As work covers more than a half of the awake time of every person, happiness at work is key in achieving overall happiness.

There are several indicators to be taken into consideration as happiness at work includes more than job satisfaction. Individual happiness can be measured through work engagement, organisational commitment. Happiness can be measured at multiple levels, including job experiences and attitude towards work.

There are many ways in which we can measure happiness at work. Some of them are formal, others less. From job satisfaction, to whether one considers work a calling, to how authentic he/she feels it is possible to be at work, to how he/she handles setbacks and difficulties, to the nature of the social relationships at work. All of these surveys provide critical data for justifying, guiding, and validating efforts to boost happiness at work. They can be conducted on a regular basis by setting up questionnaires, collect the results, analyse and interpret them.

There are companies which go even further. Hitachi for instance published a report called Measuring Happiness Using Wearable Technology. In a nutshell, Hitachi employs a dedicated happiness unit that gathers voluntary ongoing physiological and self-report data about employee happiness.

Other companies are using easy to put in place creative methods providing quick feedback. One example would be Atlassian which measures employee happiness every day. They’ve placed iPads at the exit of all office building and are using them to display the real time status of the company. Employees are asked just one question, every day. Results are shown in real time allowing senior management to intervene when the general mood of the company is declining.

Measuring the happiness from organisations to countries

Better Life Index

There is more to life than the cold numbers of GDP and economic statistics. It needs to understand happiness on a global scale. Since 2011, when the OECD published its ‘How’s Life’ report, it has been involved with standardizing the ways in which the statistical data in many areas are collected, including those devoted to measuring happiness.

The Better Life Index, the survey from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), allows to compare well-being across countries, based on 11 topics the OECD has identified as essential, in the areas of material living conditions and quality of life, such as employment, health, housing and civic engagement.

World Happiness Report

The World Happiness Report is an annual publication of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. It contains articles, and rankings of national happiness based on respondent ratings of their own lives, which the report also correlates with various life factors.

In July 2011, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 65/309 Happiness: Towards a Holistic Definition of Development inviting member countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use the data to help guide public policy. The report outlines the state of world happiness, causes of happiness and misery, and policy implications highlighted by case studies. The report primarily uses data from the Gallup World Poll. Each annual report is available to the public to download on the World Happiness Report website.

There are several way to measure happiness at all levels: individual, organisational and even national. Those measures allow us to change something and to contribute to the well being of everyone. But, as Mark Holder was saying: „What is interesting to me is that professors, researchers, and the general public never doubt that you can measure depression, anxiety, and stress. But many are reluctant to accept that happiness is measurable”.

Let’s measure happiness and make people happier!

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