In the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers described three inalienable rights, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Of these concepts, the one that is the most elusive and perhaps difficult to define is happiness. This may be why the phrase “pursuit of happiness” is used rather than “happiness.”
Isn’t happiness subjective? What does it mean to pursue happiness? Can it be measured? If so, how?
World Happiness and Life Satisfaction Surveys
Happiness is measured through surveys, but people may question the metrics. Life satisfaction is often used as a synonym for joy. Frequently, countries are rated by how happy their inhabitants are or how well they fit the life satisfaction index. People are asked questions such as “If you could imagine yourself on a ladder and the best possible life you could live was at the top, and worst is at the bottom, where are you on the ladder?”
However, how is “best” characterized? Most prosperous? Most fulfilling socially, emotionally, and socially? Some of us value being around family and friends frequently, whereas others like to have enough time to be alone and create. Others link happiness and wealth.
These surveys have found that those who live in countries with richer countries tend to be happier. That has led to suspicion that the surveys may have questions skewed towards material prosperity or the notion of doing well or being happy as connected to class and having enough money.
Ways to Measure Happiness
Still, some psychologists’ careers are dedicated to measuring happiness. They may look at the following:
- Biological factors
- Behavioral Cues
- Analysis of Communication
- Asking Others
We think of happiness as an emotional state. However, a significant indication of how we feel emotionally is based on what is going on biologically. Some happiness scientists take saliva and urine samples to measure levels of neurotransmitters. It is proven that many types of depression, for example, are biologically based, and symptoms can be managed through medication. According to Stanford University researchers, 50% of depression is biological and genetically based.
Experts can also measure happiness by looking at behavioral cues, such as laughing, smiling, and socializing. The success of this may depend on the subject not knowing they are being observed. Also, people can put on a smile or pretend to be happy to mask their true feelings.
Psychologists can look at writings, social media posts, and notes and interpret someone’s state of mind through implicit clues. However, this may signal a temporary mental state rather than a general attitude and outlook on life. Asking other people who are acquainted with the person may provide some insight into whether or not someone is happy. As mentioned above, though, people can mask their inner feelings, but these friends and family members are likely to see the person off their guard.
Self-reporting can be effective in assessing someone’s state of mind. However, people may feel tempted to disguise their feelings and feel pressured to represent themselves as more stable or happy than they are.
So, Can or Should Happiness Be Determined?
As observed in the above discussion, there are advantages and drawbacks to every measure of happiness and life satisfaction. The answer seems to be to take an integrated approach and employ a combination of the above to paint an overall picture of joy. This would be time-consuming and expensive to do for a large population.
Should we measure happiness? It seems like a valuable thing to do if a person is willing to participate. Monitoring many people with an app that will explore specific metrics may be hard to implement and violate privacy and individual rights. However, an app that can measure certain factors could be a potential diagnostic tool for subjects participating with their full consent. As with many other aspects of our lives, technology could be a valuable tool to understanding happiness.