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ScienceSocietySpiegeloog 412: Happiness

Quantifying Happiness

By May 26, 2021May 28th, 2021No Comments

People want to be happy and to know how happy others are. To convey how happy we are, we have to define happiness and then measure it accordingly. As it turns out, this task of quantifying happiness is tricky.

People want to be happy and to know how happy others are. To convey how happy we are, we have to define happiness and then measure it accordingly. As it turns out, this task of quantifying happiness is tricky.

Photo by Tyler Nix
Photo by Tyler Nix

The question ‘How are you?’ is undoubtedly one of the most common questions ever asked. I believe it is so common to start a conversation with this question that we sometimes don’t even realise asking it. Knowing how people are doing therefore seems like valuable information to us. Indeed, even on a societal level, knowing how happy people are has become increasingly important for many countries, such as Bhutan which abandoned the idea of using Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of progress but rather uses its happiness index to guide future governmental decisions (“Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index,” n.d.). Similarly, New Zealand adopted a ‘happiness gains per fund spent’ as one of the indices of efficient spending (Sigal, 2019). Moreover, the UN started to issue an annual World Happiness Report, wherein countries are compared on their happiness levels, based on various indicators. However, it is a valid question to ask what those indicators are, and whether they measure the same thing across people and countries, namely happiness. In this article, the validity of measurement of happiness will be discussed, first by outlining the problems we can encounter when defining happiness and also when trying to devise a measure of happiness.

“to define happiness, other constructs might be used which are in turn defined by happiness”

To know one’s happiness level, we need to define happiness. This has proven to be a tricky business, because happiness, in colloquial terms, might entail endless ways that make a person happy – thus making the definitions of happiness extremely personal and subjective – but it might also entail the state of being happy. APA’s definition of happiness is that of ‘an emotion of joy, gladness, satisfaction, and well-being’ (Happiness, n.d.), thus describing the state of being happy. However, we stumble upon a bit of circularity when looking up the definition of well-being, which is defined as ‘a state of happiness and contentment, with low levels of distress, overall good physical and mental health and outlook, or good quality of life’ (Well-being, n.d.), since this definition includes the concept of happiness itself. In other words, to define happiness, other constructs might be used which are in turn defined by happiness.

However, what all the definitions of concepts related to happiness seem to have in common is the more general notion of ‘good quality of life’ and ‘low levels of distress’. And this is precisely what governments have seized as the definition of happiness. Particularly, various indicators have been devised that would predict countries’ happiness levels and which would include those two elements, namely good quality of life and low levels of distress. This has precipitated into factors such as levels of literacy, access to health care, political freedom, quantity of leisure, income levels and pollution levels (Helliwell, Layard, & Sachs, 2019).

It needs to be noted, however, that to compare levels of happiness internationally – or even across two people, for that matter – we are making the assumption that happiness is in some way quantitative, or measurable in quantities. In other words, it would not make sense to talk about comparing countries with regards to their levels of happiness if every country, and every person within that country, had their own idea about what happiness means. On top of that, one’s conceptions of happiness might change over time, as a result of experience. Therefore, it is important to make it explicit that we are assuming the quantitativeness as well as conceptual stability of happiness within and across countries, and over time. Regarding the quantitativeness assumption, it has been argued that psychological constructs in fact do not possess quantitative structure, or at least that such structure has not been systematically tested and therefore is not verified (Michell, 2008). This means that answers on a questionnaire measuring happiness might not be informative at all about the relative amount of happiness a person experiences, and therefore might invalidate the inferences drawn from such research.

Regarding the stability assumption, matters are grim as well – taking into consideration all sorts of variables that might change one’s conception of happiness is arguably a very computationally hard task to do. Nevertheless, issues with these assumptions have been somewhat ignored by the psychometric community, and instead a pragmatic view has become imperative, namely the notion that relations of happiness measures would validate the definition of measurement as presently used. However, some efforts have been made in making the measurement of happiness more tailored to the person surveyed, in what is known as the Cantril ladder (Cantril, 1965).

“The subjectivity inherent in the Cantril ladder is apparent, which conveniently acknowledges the inherent subjectivity of the concept of happiness.”

The Cantril ladder is a simple measure of life satisfaction, wherein the test taker is asked to imagine a ladder as a way of picturing their life, with the top of the ladder (the 10th rung) representing the best possible life, and the bottom of the ladder (the 1st rung) representing the worst possible life. The test taker is then asked to indicate the rung on which they imagine standing at that moment, corresponding to how high they consider the quality of their life to be. Then the mean of each country’s Cantril ladder survey responses is computed, providing a point of comparison in the level of happiness across countries. It might look like our troubles with defining measurement have been solved, since the subjectivity inherent in the Cantril ladder is apparent, which conveniently acknowledges the inherent subjectivity of the concept of happiness. This would mean that whatever the people conceive of as happiness, at whatever part of their life, this is neatly captured in their indication of the rung on which they stand at this moment.

However, the quantitativeness assumption of the concept of happiness has still been ignored. In essence, it is not clear whether someone standing on the higher rung is happier than the person standing on a position of just one rug lower. Similarly, it is unclear whether computing means on citizens’ estimates of rung positions is valid, because for a mean computation to be valid, one assumes equal distance between the units, essentially assuming at least interval scale of measurement. Arguably, since the rungs are said to be ordered from 1 to 10, data on Cantril ladder might be ordinal, in other words, the distance from rung 1 to rung 2 in terms of increase in happiness might not be the same as the distance from rung 6 to rung 7. Effectively, this problem has been overlooked as well. Notwithstanding, Cantril ladder has proven a convenient way of quantifying happiness, even though the caveats of quantifying something that might be qualitative in nature are inescapable.

In short, happiness has become a priority in many countries. To compare countries on happiness, a somewhat circular definition has been proposed, which nevertheless leads to certain criteria on which to predict countries’ happiness. One of the direct measures of happiness that has been proposed is the Cantril ladder, and even though it does not solve all the problems related to the measurement of happiness, it is a practical index of one’s happiness that acknowledges the subjectivity of the construct. Arguably, it remains to be seen whether the Cantril ladder, or any other measure of happiness, is indeed measuring this elusive construct. <<

References

– Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index. (n.d.). Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative. Retrieved from https://ophi.org.uk/policy/gross-national-happiness-index/
– Cantril, H. (1965). The pattern of human concerns. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
– Happiness. (n.d.). In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/happiness
– Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2019). World happiness report 2019. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
– Michell, J. (2008). Is psychometrics pathological science?. Measurement, 6(1-2), 7–24. 
– Sigal, S. (2019). Forget GDP — New Zealand is prioritizing gross national well-being. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/6/8/18656710/new-zealand-wellbeing-budget-bhutan-happiness
– Well-being. (n.d.). In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/well-being

The question ‘How are you?’ is undoubtedly one of the most common questions ever asked. I believe it is so common to start a conversation with this question that we sometimes don’t even realise asking it. Knowing how people are doing therefore seems like valuable information to us. Indeed, even on a societal level, knowing how happy people are has become increasingly important for many countries, such as Bhutan which abandoned the idea of using Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of progress but rather uses its happiness index to guide future governmental decisions (“Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index,” n.d.). Similarly, New Zealand adopted a ‘happiness gains per fund spent’ as one of the indices of efficient spending (Sigal, 2019). Moreover, the UN started to issue an annual World Happiness Report, wherein countries are compared on their happiness levels, based on various indicators. However, it is a valid question to ask what those indicators are, and whether they measure the same thing across people and countries, namely happiness. In this article, the validity of measurement of happiness will be discussed, first by outlining the problems we can encounter when defining happiness and also when trying to devise a measure of happiness.

“to define happiness, other constructs might be used which are in turn defined by happiness”

To know one’s happiness level, we need to define happiness. This has proven to be a tricky business, because happiness, in colloquial terms, might entail endless ways that make a person happy – thus making the definitions of happiness extremely personal and subjective – but it might also entail the state of being happy. APA’s definition of happiness is that of ‘an emotion of joy, gladness, satisfaction, and well-being’ (Happiness, n.d.), thus describing the state of being happy. However, we stumble upon a bit of circularity when looking up the definition of well-being, which is defined as ‘a state of happiness and contentment, with low levels of distress, overall good physical and mental health and outlook, or good quality of life’ (Well-being, n.d.), since this definition includes the concept of happiness itself. In other words, to define happiness, other constructs might be used which are in turn defined by happiness.

However, what all the definitions of concepts related to happiness seem to have in common is the more general notion of ‘good quality of life’ and ‘low levels of distress’. And this is precisely what governments have seized as the definition of happiness. Particularly, various indicators have been devised that would predict countries’ happiness levels and which would include those two elements, namely good quality of life and low levels of distress. This has precipitated into factors such as levels of literacy, access to health care, political freedom, quantity of leisure, income levels and pollution levels (Helliwell, Layard, & Sachs, 2019).

It needs to be noted, however, that to compare levels of happiness internationally – or even across two people, for that matter – we are making the assumption that happiness is in some way quantitative, or measurable in quantities. In other words, it would not make sense to talk about comparing countries with regards to their levels of happiness if every country, and every person within that country, had their own idea about what happiness means. On top of that, one’s conceptions of happiness might change over time, as a result of experience. Therefore, it is important to make it explicit that we are assuming the quantitativeness as well as conceptual stability of happiness within and across countries, and over time. Regarding the quantitativeness assumption, it has been argued that psychological constructs in fact do not possess quantitative structure, or at least that such structure has not been systematically tested and therefore is not verified (Michell, 2008). This means that answers on a questionnaire measuring happiness might not be informative at all about the relative amount of happiness a person experiences, and therefore might invalidate the inferences drawn from such research.

Regarding the stability assumption, matters are grim as well – taking into consideration all sorts of variables that might change one’s conception of happiness is arguably a very computationally hard task to do. Nevertheless, issues with these assumptions have been somewhat ignored by the psychometric community, and instead a pragmatic view has become imperative, namely the notion that relations of happiness measures would validate the definition of measurement as presently used. However, some efforts have been made in making the measurement of happiness more tailored to the person surveyed, in what is known as the Cantril ladder (Cantril, 1965).

“The subjectivity inherent in the Cantril ladder is apparent, which conveniently acknowledges the inherent subjectivity of the concept of happiness.”

The Cantril ladder is a simple measure of life satisfaction, wherein the test taker is asked to imagine a ladder as a way of picturing their life, with the top of the ladder (the 10th rung) representing the best possible life, and the bottom of the ladder (the 1st rung) representing the worst possible life. The test taker is then asked to indicate the rung on which they imagine standing at that moment, corresponding to how high they consider the quality of their life to be. Then the mean of each country’s Cantril ladder survey responses is computed, providing a point of comparison in the level of happiness across countries. It might look like our troubles with defining measurement have been solved, since the subjectivity inherent in the Cantril ladder is apparent, which conveniently acknowledges the inherent subjectivity of the concept of happiness. This would mean that whatever the people conceive of as happiness, at whatever part of their life, this is neatly captured in their indication of the rung on which they stand at this moment.

However, the quantitativeness assumption of the concept of happiness has still been ignored. In essence, it is not clear whether someone standing on the higher rung is happier than the person standing on a position of just one rug lower. Similarly, it is unclear whether computing means on citizens’ estimates of rung positions is valid, because for a mean computation to be valid, one assumes equal distance between the units, essentially assuming at least interval scale of measurement. Arguably, since the rungs are said to be ordered from 1 to 10, data on Cantril ladder might be ordinal, in other words, the distance from rung 1 to rung 2 in terms of increase in happiness might not be the same as the distance from rung 6 to rung 7. Effectively, this problem has been overlooked as well. Notwithstanding, Cantril ladder has proven a convenient way of quantifying happiness, even though the caveats of quantifying something that might be qualitative in nature are inescapable.

In short, happiness has become a priority in many countries. To compare countries on happiness, a somewhat circular definition has been proposed, which nevertheless leads to certain criteria on which to predict countries’ happiness. One of the direct measures of happiness that has been proposed is the Cantril ladder, and even though it does not solve all the problems related to the measurement of happiness, it is a practical index of one’s happiness that acknowledges the subjectivity of the construct. Arguably, it remains to be seen whether the Cantril ladder, or any other measure of happiness, is indeed measuring this elusive construct. <<

References

– Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index. (n.d.). Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative. Retrieved from https://ophi.org.uk/policy/gross-national-happiness-index/
– Cantril, H. (1965). The pattern of human concerns. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
– Happiness. (n.d.). In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/happiness
– Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2019). World happiness report 2019. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
– Michell, J. (2008). Is psychometrics pathological science?. Measurement, 6(1-2), 7–24. 
– Sigal, S. (2019). Forget GDP — New Zealand is prioritizing gross national well-being. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/6/8/18656710/new-zealand-wellbeing-budget-bhutan-happiness
– Well-being. (n.d.). In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/well-being

 

Milena Kaprálová

Author Milena Kaprálová

Milena (1999) is a second year psychology student, interested in how biology and psychology inform one another. She is an open science enthusiast and likes to write about subjective experience.

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