“How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
On a scale of 0 to 10, I’d say my happiness ranks at about a 6. I’d guess my wife’s is at least a 9. I try not to envy her natural Spanish alegría, but sometimes it’s hard.
Still, I’m glad to know I’m a 6, because, as a famous management maxim puts it, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” This is generally used in reference to business operations, but as a social scientist, I can assure you that it works for life operations as well. If you want to improve an aspect of your life, you need to be able to assess progress toward your goal—and that means measuring it.
The goal of this column is to help you manage and improve your happiness. No surprise, then, that I make frequent reference to studies and surveys that measure happiness. A number of people have asked me whether quantitative happiness measures are really accurate and reliable—and it’s a reasonable question. So let’s take a look behind the curtain. But not just for intellectual curiosity; as you will see, understanding the measurement of happiness can itself make you better at improving your own well-being—and avoid some critical errors.
The best method scientists have to understand with confidence how something affects something else is a randomized, controlled trial. Think of the tests currently under way to find a vaccine for COVID-19. They take a long time because the drug companies with trial vaccines are conducting experiments that randomly assign people to a treatment group (they get the vaccine) and control group (they get a placebo), and then waiting to see if the drug is effective and safe by comparing the two groups after enough time has passed.
In the research on happiness, this usually isn’t possible. Want to know if people are truly happiest in Denmark, as some studies suggest, and test it with a randomized experiment? You would need to randomly take two groups out of their homes, move one group to Copenhagen, and the other to, say, Dayton, Ohio—but make sure they think it might be Copenhagen and never get the truth. Follow up a few years later to see who is happier.
Obviously, that’s ridiculous. So with randomized controlled trials largely not available to them, happiness researchers instead rely on self-reported happiness surveys, where large groups of people anonymously report their levels of life satisfaction. Then, the researchers use fairly sophisticated statistical techniques to mimic a controlled experiment in order to show how different aspects of people’s lives affect—or at least are associated with—their happiness.
Good happiness surveys, then, are extremely valuable. Gallup surveys citizens every year in more than 160 countries with this question: “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 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?” In addition to allowing researchers to uncover associations between people’s personal behavior and characteristics, and their happiness, this allows for international comparisons, such as the Legatum Institute’s new Prosperity Index, which finds Denmark at the top on all-around “prosperity,” and uses Gallup’s data for the emotional well-being dimension of the index.
Within the U.S., a commonly cited data source is the General Social Survey, or GSS. This has been measuring general well-being levels every one or two years going back to 1972, and since then, has always shown that the percentage of people who say they are “very happy” hovers between roughly 30 and 35 percent, while the percentage of those who are “not too happy” sits around 10 to 15 percent. The rest are “pretty happy.” Until this year, that is: Data collected in May 2020 show that for the first time, the unhappy people outnumber the very happy people. During the first half of this year, the “not too happy” proportion climbed to 23 percent, while “very happy” declined to 14 percent. It looks like 2020 has been our grouchiest year in at least the past half century.
Surveys like Gallup’s and the GSS are random slices of the population at a given time. Rarer are data that follow particular individuals over time, asking them happiness questions over and over to see how their happiness changes. These data are especially valuable for showing that, for example, happiness tends to fall over the course of one’s young adulthood, and then rises through one’s 50s and 60s.
All of these surveys are self-assessments, which might arouse your skepticism. Perhaps people assess their happiness based on their current mood—or maybe they lie when asked about their happiness. To test this, scholars have compared survey data with other sorts of tests—and they’ve found them consistent. For example, self-assessments correlate highly with happiness assessments by others. In other words, what you report about your happiness is usually very close to how others perceive your happiness. Further, well-constructed surveys tend to be stable over time and might correlate strongly with other measures of well-being, such as optimism and self-esteem. And in a rare instance of honesty on the internet, scholars have even validated the accuracy of certain virtual happiness surveys.
Still, these measures are a bit blunt, insofar as they blend all dimensions of happiness into one number. For example, happiness surveys conflate hedonia (feeling good) and eudaemonia (purpose in life). For most people, both are important to true happiness. If you party a lot but have no direction or meaning (think, perhaps, of your undergraduate years), you are unlikely to define yourself as happy. Similarly, if you are entirely driven by your life’s work, and find purpose in it, but feel awful about your relationships (for example, a workaholic in a bad marriage), you would probably not consider yourself to be happy either.
Thus, while single-number surveys are great for researchers like me, in order to understand and manage your own happiness you need more nuanced self-tests, of which there are many. Professor Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has created a repository of the best self-tests on emotions, gratitude, optimism, relationships, and many other happiness dimensions. My personal favorite is the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule, or PANAS, which measures the intensity and frequency of positive and negative moods and feelings. This test shows clearly that positive and negative feelings are not incompatible; I personally fall at the top of the population average in both. (Your happiness columnist is a bit volatile.)
These self-tests can be extremely useful at a personal level—but they can also be harmful when relied on too much. I have used them to great effect in my life, but I have also seen them exacerbate problems with unhappiness in others.
The key is to remember that happiness self-tests are a source of information to understand ourselves better, work on positive changes (personally, I have made many, and my well-being is much higher as a result), and manage our unique personalities. For example, when I teach about the PANAS test, I say there are four basic quadrants in which one might fall: high positive affect and high negative affect (I call this the “Mad Scientist” quadrant—like me); low positive and low negative (what I call “Sober Judges”); high positive and low negative (“Cheerleaders”); and low positive and high negative (“Poets”).
I know, I know, you wish you were in the cheerleader quadrant. But the world doesn’t need just cheerleaders—on a moment’s reflection, you’ll likely realize that it would be a Panglossian nightmare if everyone saw only the bright side of everything. The world needs poets, too. (And everyone looks great in a black turtleneck.) And while positive affect can be nudged upward, given the likely stronger genetic component of negative affect, you probably can’t change your overall profile all that much, so it’s unproductive to worry about it. Instead, the task is to think about how your profile fits with your goals to live life to the fullest and serve others.
The most dangerous use of happiness self-tests is social comparison. Researchers have long found that social comparison is a killer of joy, but you hardly need a study to tell you that—just spend a few hours browsing Instagram and see how bad you feel about yourself. This is because you are comparing your happiness with your perception of others’ happiness, as depicted in information of dubious accuracy. Nothing good comes of this.
Shakespeare sums up the happiness-comparison problem in his Sonnet 29. The bard, after cursing what he calls his “outcast state,” compares himself with “one more rich in hope, / Featured like him, like him with friends possessed, / Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope.” The product of this envy? “With what I most enjoy contented least.” In sum: If you compare your happiness with others’—and covet theirs—you will lose the happiness you do have.
The ancient Greek aphorism to “know thyself” is very good advice, and when it comes to happiness, it is possible and worth the effort. I am comfortable with my gentlemanly 6, working to raise it where I can—writing this column helps—and never, ever comparing it with my wife’s 9.
But she’s just so lucky. It really isn’t fair.