How Can We Most Effectively Measure Happiness?

Editor’s Note: At a

Zócalo Public Square* event

, several experts were asked to weigh in on the following question: How should we most effectively measure happiness? Here is Carol Graham’s response-

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?

Read other responses to this question at »

*Zócalo Public Square is a not-for-profit daily ideas exchange that blends digital humanities journalism and live events.