Measuring subjective happiness

March 4, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More

In the January 29, 2010 issue of Science (available online only to subscribers), Richard Layard considers whether subjective reports are valid ways of measuring the well-being of a population.  After all, we’ve been hearing some rather extraordinary findings of studies over the years based upon subjective happiness. For instance, studies consistently show that higher national income does not increase “quality of life,” (defined by subjective happiness). In fact, based on studies relying on subjective judgment, there has been no increase in happiness over the past 50 years in the United States.

Layard asks a fundamental question: “Can subjective well-being really be measured well enough to be used in policy analyses?”  Even though the science of measuring happiness is “very young,” Layard indicates that subjective measures of happiness are well correlated with at least five relevant sets of variables:

The reports of friends; the possible causes of well-being; some possible effects of well-being; physical functioning, such as levels of cortisol; and measures of brain activity.

There is good reason to be optimistic that we will get better at measuring happiness. “Fifty years ago, there was considerable debate on how to measure depression, but by now this has become much less controversial in all likelihood, the measurement of happiness will become similarly less controversial.”

As we fine-tune our methods of measuring of subjective happiness, Layard believes we will be better able to monitor trends of happiness, we will deal to identify problem groups within populations and we will be better able to determine why some people are happy and others are not.  Better measurements will certainly allow us determine quality of life better than the many efforts to do so in terms of money.

What’s at stake according to Layard? As we leave behind our crude financial measurements of the quality of life and continue to develop better methods of measuring subjective happiness, “it will produce very different priorities for our society.”


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Category: Current Events, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Mark Matiszik says:

    I'm also enjoying the increased research on happiness, and I agree we will get better and better at making assessments of happiness that are accurate and objective.

    What's also interesting to me is that, once we do understand happiness more accurately, we may also get to question the assumption that increased happiness should always be the ultimate goal.

    I'm not implying any sane person would desire less happiness, just that once we know what makes us happy, we might be able to trade some of that happiness consciously (without being ridiculed for doing so).

    For example, I like Penelope Trunk's idea that, "people need to choose between an interesting life and a happy life." ( That is, that you cannot have both and that you're best off figuring out which is important to you.

    Remember, life is really the opposite of what the old Michelob Light commercials asserted ( "Oh NO you can't….have it all."

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