Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

How Many Happy Balls Are in Your Beaker?

How do positive psychologists really measure happiness?

If you are not familiar with the weather for San Francisco in July, it can be rather cold and foggy. However, last weekend we had a break from the fog, so my family and I took advantage and enjoyed some activities outside. 

By Sunday afternoon, something struck me. What would I say if someone asked me, “Were you happy this weekend”? My response would be, "Well, yes," but happiness is actually a bit narrow in describing how I felt. 

Walking down to Ocean Beach on Saturday, I felt energized and alive. Walking on the beach, I felt engaged with my senses. While picnicking in Golden Gate Park, I felt relaxed and stress free. At our farmer's market on Sunday, I felt a sense of community. After taking the ferry over to Angel Island where we rode our bikes, I experienced awe as I enjoyed the view of natural wonder. But even these emotions wouldn’t fully capture the weekend as I felt more closely connected to my family as a result of them being there with me. 

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How, then, do we really measure happiness? When I tell people that I am a happiness researcher, two of the more common reactions are:

  • You can’t measure happiness because its meaning differs when you ask different people to define it; and 
  • "Happiness" doesn’t fully capture the full range of emotions and evaluations we make about our lives. 

There is some degree of truth in both of these statements and I think my weekend captures that. But psychologists are beginning to research the beliefs people have about what makes life worth living. And when we ask people how they define the good life, there are (at least) four different paths people take to living it: 

(1) Experiencing a lot of positive emotions. 

(2) Experiencing as few negative emotions as possible.  

(3) Spending a lot of time with friends and family.

(4) Trying to fill life with purpose. 

Personally, I am not one to try to define happiness for others; that is something people must do for themselves. But what I can do is provide ways to help you determine your baseline happiness levels and measure your happiness so you can take action to increase the happiness you experience in your life.  

For these reasons, I think that before one can take action to try to increase the “happiness” they experience in their lives, they must first: (1) define happiness for themselves (how do you define the good life?) and (2) determine their baseline happiness levels. To receive personalized feedback on how you define the good life and on your current level of global happiness, first Login or Register with BeyondThePurchase.Org then take the beliefs in well-being scale and the happiness and life satisfaction scale.

Ryan T. Howell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University.

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