What we really measure when we measure happiness

What does it mean to lead a good life? This question is as old as human thought itself. There is little reason — to put it mildly — to expect that we’ll collectively settle on one final, definitive answer any time soon. But in addition to the age-old demand for literature and philosophy that tackle this question, there’s an increasing appetite for social science that aims to address it empirically.

This hunger for objective research on such an abstract topic is par for the course in our empirical age. Fads like Big Data and “explanatory journalism” testify to our impatience with imprecision of any kind. We wield facts and figures like flashlights, hoping they can dispel the shadows of subjectivity and clear away the mysteries that make us uneasy. Public intellectuals line up to insist that schools should emphasize STEM at the expense of those fluffy humanities. We crave “analytics” for even our innermost experiences; why wrestle with a complex question like “How are you doing?” when your pedometer, your sleep tracker, and your mood analysis website can answer on your behalf?

Human happiness is a major frontier for this craving to quantify ourselves and our world. Demand has exploded for scholarly research on what factors make for a satisfying life. Long ago, people put this question to their parents and their pastors; today, we run a regression.

Despite my skeptical tone, this trend has huge benefits. As AEI’s own Arthur Brooks frequently points out, new research and survey results often confirm ancient precepts and time-tested teachings. The latest data can help us discern which pillars of conventional wisdom are worthwhile and which miss the mark. And insofar as making people happy is a reasonable and mostly uncontroversial social goal, this wave of new research has a role to play in informing public policy. This is precisely the conversation to which this blog, and AEI’s new Program on Human Flourishing, contribute.

But we must bear in mind the old business axiom: You get what you measure. So what do we measure when we measure happiness? How do these studies and surveys and reports operationalize such an ancient and ephemeral concept?

Two of the most popular measurements are notable for how much they differ.

First, think about what happens in your mind when a colleague queries, “How’s it going?” You instinctively recognize they’re not asking a broad question about your life, but a short-term question about your mood. If you were to be honest — rather that reflexively firing back “Good, how are you?!” — you would take stock of your mood and report back. Well, this is basically the same approach that social scientists often take. To put it simply, the PANAS, or Positive and Negative Affect Scale, measures your happy feelings and your sad feelings along two distinct scales. You could be a hyper person who’s above average on both; you could be a more placid soul who is below average on both; or you could be an unusually cheerful or unusually bummed person if one metric dwarfs the other. This tool measures your emotional experience. It’s a sophisticated thermometer for your moods.

Now, instead of idle chat around the water cooler, imagine that you’re having a long talk with a close friend or relative. “Forget all the small stuff,” he or she says. “Zoom out for me. All things considered, how happy are you with your life?” This is a very different question. It will provoke very different thoughts and potentially elicit a very different answer. And this is another question that social scientists love to ask. When we encounter scholarly references to “subjective well-being” (SWB), a common stand-in for happiness, this is usually the sort of question that got the researchers their data.

One popular gauge for this more reflective measure of life satisfaction is the “Cantril ladder,” named for the leading researcher who invented it. Here’s how Gallup, which frequently measures well-being this way, frames the question:

Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top.

The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you.

On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?

This isn’t asking people to check their moods. It’s requesting that we step back, consult whatever personal, religious, or social standards we have in mind, and deliver a holistic verdict on how our life is going.

Often, these two measures of “happiness” — our simple emotional state and our broader reflection on life — will track together. If an unemployed father gets a new job, he is almost certain to trend upwards on both the PANAS (he has fewer miserable moments and more contended moments each day) and the Cantril ladder (he is, broadly speaking, more satisfied with life).

But the two do not always align. Some personal choices and policy decisions may represent a fork in the road, where our paths to simple contentment and to deeper meaning head off in very different directions. Which road should we take? Which measure of happiness ought we prioritize?

This crucial question is not so easily answered. It merits a great deal of reflection. But now, as you’re working out what you believe, you’ll consume happiness research much more critically. Because the next time a pretty chart or an eye-popping headline proclaims that something has been proven to make people happy, you’ll keep reading, and see whether they’re talking about a positive emotional balance or a holistic sense of satisfaction. Which variable they measure makes a tremendous difference.