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.
Read: Can this app make me happier?
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.