Friday, June 16, 2017

Is Happiness Subjective or Objective?

A question posed on Quora asks Is Happiness Subjective or Objective? Today I took some time to answer, after mulling about how to answer the question in a way that was truthful to the work of providing a happiness measurement tool and respectful to those who put no stalk in measurement tools. Here is the answer: 

One way to answer this question of whether happiness is objective or subjective is to ask the question of whether can happiness be measured, and if so, can it be measured through subjective instruments (surveys, questionnaires, assessments, etc.)) or objective instruments (observable data such as life expectancy, mental health, economic and political freedom, health, income distribution, etc).

Regarding the topic of subjective measurements, on an intuitive level, we know that happiness can be and is often measured by the question we commonly ask “how are you?” or, more intimately, “How are you feeling?” That happiness can be measured through questions and that one can get a response that one can rely upon to understand a person’s happiness is backed by science (Frey & Luechinger, 2007; Pavot & Diener, 1993). Thus, the question here is not whether we can measure happiness, but whether we are using an effective measurement tool, meaning is our question good enough? If we are asking about an emotional, then instead of asking a question like “Are you feeling happy or sad, depressed, anxious, angry, etc?” Instead, the question is best asked “Are you feeling happy, or unhappy? “Sad or not sad?” Angry or not angry” etc. There are a number of reasons for this, and one of them is that we can have more than one feeling at ta time, and can even have conflicting feelings at the same time. For example, you might feel elatedly happy when your best friend just fell in love or won the lottery, at the same time as feeling jealous, angry and depressed. To come to understand ourselves and others, we peel away at each feeling: happiness for our friend comes from the love we have for them, jealousy from a fear of loss of status perhaps, anger at oneself for not meeting internally assumed societal expectations perhaps and depression from fear of loss of friendship perhaps. Diener et. al. (2009) developed an affect scale that includes 12 feelings: positive, negative, good, bad, pleasant, unpleasant, happy, sad, afraid, joyful, angry, and contented. All this said, it is up to each person to define what happiness, sadness, joy, anger, anxiety, calm, etc, is to them. Your sense of being happy may be very different from mine, but both definitions are caught by the term happiness.

In conclusion to the intuitive approach to happiness : if you want to know how you are feeling or how someone else is feeling, ask, and ask questions about a single emotion. You can use scales such as, on a scale of 0–10, with 0 being the least and 10 being the most, how happy are you?, how angry? how depressed? how calm? etc, or you can ask, are you happy or unhappy, angry or not angry, etc, or just “are you happy?”

Regarding the topic of subjective measurements, on a scientific level, the question of whether happiness can be measured is a resounding YES. The issuance of the World Happiness Report in 2012 (Helliwell, Layard & Sachs) and then again in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017) shows not just that happiness can be measured but how to measure it. Further clarifying this issue is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation (OECD) Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being. Thus, the question is not whether happiness can be measured and if it can be measured subjectively (yes) but what are we measuring exactly? Happiness is defined and measured in three different buckets; feelings (affect), eudemonia (the good life, or thriving), and satisfaction with life and the conditions of life. These three buckets provide different information that informs different questions and yields different implications. Affect can tell us how a specific environment or situation impacts a person. For example, are people happier working remotely or in the office; when commuting to work, on the bus or in their car:, on Friday or Saturday, etc? Eudemonia tells us what motivates people, and how resilient we are. For example, do you have a sense of purpose in your life? So you feel like your life is worthwhile? Are you optimistic about your future? And Satisfaction with Life and the conditions of life gives us information about our remembered experience, which is fundamental to understanding why and how we will make decisions (Kahneman et. al. 1993 & Kehneman, 2010), for example, will people perceive a neighborhood or city safer or less safe, find a job satisfying or less satisfying, etc.

The buckets of happiness make a difference because we know that we can have an impact on our happiness levels. Happiness is dependent, in scientific, on three different places of origin: our genetic set point, our life’s circumstances and our own mind (Weiss, Bates & Luciano, 2008 & Lyubomirsky, 2008). We can change our life’s circumstances and often do. We move, get an education, fall in love, have a family, decide on a life calling and career path, get a job, move into an abode, take up a passion or hobby, get involved in our government… We can change our minds and now science tells us that practicing mindfulness, gratitude and giving will do that (and have a cascading effect on changing our opportunities for life circumstances, such as job offers, friendships and quality of relationships). We can even change our genetics through medications, and, it is starting to become clear, mindfulness and other practices.

Today, most governments are measuring some aspect of happiness using survey questions (Economic Performance, 2016). One thing that governments looking into using this data are clear about: it is not the role of government to force people into behaviors or actions with the idea that then they will be happier (i.e. big brother is not going to force you to eat your spinach) but the role of government to provide the environments and situations (life circumstances) so that we the people have equal and equitable opportunities to pursue happiness. For example, the availability of really good meaningful employment, opportunities to live in safe, secure homes and neighborhoods, access to higher education and training, clean and healthy ecosystems, etc. That said, few governments, wth the exception of Bhutan (Musikanski, 2014) can figure out how to use happiness data to inform policy. That does not mean we (people, communities, cities, etc) can’t figure out how use happiness data. This is my sweet spot, and I have been working since 2010 with communities to measure happiness using a subjective instrument that covers the areas of affect, eudemonia, and satisfaction with life and the conditions of life (work, time balance, economy, environment, government, community, social support, health, culture and lifelong learning) and just published with my colleagues an essay on this (Musikanski, Polly, Cloutier,, Berejnoi, Colbert, 2017).

In conclusion on the scientific approach to happiness: Happiness can and and is being measured. The three buckets of happiness: (1) affect or feelings, (2) eudemonia (today commonly called thriving) and (3) satisfaction with life and the conditions of life. Related to these bucket, there are three ways to make a difference in your own life and be happier: change your mind, change your life’s circumstances or change your genetics. Your biggest leverage points are more than likely changing the way you think, through some form of contemplated practice, such as mindfulness, prayer or meditation (a walk in the woods can be a meditation); giving more (your time, your love, your attention, volunteering, donating), and practicing gratitude (thank people more, keep a gratitude journal, think about something that went well and why every night before you go to sleep).

Regarding the topic of objective measurements, on a scientific level, happiness has been measured via several blends of objective and subjective measurements, most notably the Happy Planet Index (2012), which combines life expectancy (an objective measure) with an ecological footprint (the amount of natural resources needed for a lifestyle) and a subjective happiness measurement for satisfaction with life. There are many many other objective metrics used to measure well-being, and if you think of happiness and well-being as synonyms, then these would count. All that said, if you want to know how happy someone is, it probably is best to ask them.

Last, if you want to measure your happiness using a subjective indicator based on Bhutan;s Gross National Happiness philosophy, you can for free, and you can use this tool for a group, such as your friends, in your workplace, or elsewhere. Here: Take the Gross National Happiness Index It takes about 15 minutes, and you will get your own assessment of your happiness, with some suggestions to improve your affect (feelings) and the circumstances of your life.


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Musikanski, L, Polly, C, Cloutier, S., Berejnoi, E., Colbert, J., (2017). Happiness in Communities, How Neighborhoods, Cities, and States Use Subjective Well-being Metrics. Journal of Social Change, 9: 1, 32-54 doi:10.5590/JOSC.2017.09.1.03
Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). (2013, March 20). OECD guidelines on measuring subjective well-being. Paris, France: OECD Publishing. doi:10.1787/9789264191655-en
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