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The Problem with Measuring Happiness

New research that helps explain what happiness measures measure

It wasn't too long ago, in 2002, that Martin Seligman's book, Authentic Happiness, informed the world about scientific studies of happiness, lessons learned about the nature of happiness and several paths for cultivating happiness. Inspired by the messages in this (and related) treatises, the small country of Bhutan became the first to experiment with a Gross National Happiness Index; supplementing a historic, over-reliance on economic indicators such as the Gross Domestic Product. A sensible idea. After all, a question can be raised about making money - what are you doing this in the service of? For most people, the answer includes hope for an improvement in their quality of life. So why not skip to the end game and measure the quality of life of people, couples, communities, and societies?

And then, in 2012, Martin Seligman reversed course with his next book, Flourish. He offered a provocative opener. He no longer believed in his previous conclusion that happiness is the end game. With thousands (perhaps millions) listening, including schools, businesses, and governments that adopted his ideas, he called for a switch.

The first problem was the target of positive psychology. The target of positive psychology was happiness, and the prime measurement was “life satisfaction.” I found this problematic because, as Ruut Veenhoven (2006) has shown, when you ask people about their life satisfaction, 70 percent of their answer is what mood they are in, and about 30 percent is what judgment they make about the conditions of their life. I didn’t want a “happiology,” a psychology that was merely about what mood people were in. (p. 233-234) 

Seligman is a visionary thinker. An exceptional scientist. So I was intrigued that a single study could persuade him to change course. I turned to the reference section to uncover this study and read it myself. To my surprise, it was nothing more than an academic talk to a small audience. It was never peer reviewed. It cannot be read by readers for verification. 11 years later and the work has never been published. Strange.

One unpublished, non-replicated study was enough to persuade the 13th most eminent psychologist in the 20th century (according to one analysis) to alter their popular framework of optimal human functioning. My colleagues and I viewed this an opportunity - an idea to be tested.

Was Seligman right to abandon happiness for his new framework in his new book? To what degree is happiness influenced, perhaps contaminated by, a person's mood? 

In our first study, we found that the amount of positive and negative emotions felt accounted for 43% of the life satisfaction judgment differences between people. But then again, this isn't what Seligman mentioned. He proposed that a single person turns to their mood as a gauge of whether they are happy. Thankfully, we asked people to report on their life satisfaction and positive and negative moods each week for 5 consecutive weeks. This allowed us to check in on how much mood changes dictate life satisfaction judgments.

Switching from a comparison between people to a deep exploration of the same people over time, we found different results. 89% of within-person changes in life satisfaction could be explained by positive and negative emotions felt.

Only one hitch  - does a single person's level of life satisfaction remain stable over the course of 5 weeks? If so, then there is nothing meaningful to explain. If mood matters, it would only matter for a sliver of mental judgments. Our results suggest this is the case. Basically, a mere 9% of the ebb and flow in life satisfaction is a result of the same wavering in their judgments over time; the vast majority of changes in life satisfaction (91%) reflect between person differences. 

Did we find evidence of an effect of affect on life satisfaction?

Yes and no.

The effect found was relatively inconsequential because there was almost no change within the same people over time (at least on a weekly basis over several weeks). On average, people show great stability in their happiness levels

Jayawickreme, E., Tsukayama, E., & Kashdan, T.B. (in press). Examining the effect of affect on life satisfaction judgments: A within-person perspective. Journal of Research in Personality

One implication of these findings is that self-report measures of life satisfaction are useful even with the effect of affect since most of the variance (about 90%) is between-person. Ideally, when someone makes a judgment about her life satisfaction, she would evaluate how satisfied she was with all the important domains in her life, and then average across these domains to derive an overall satisfaction score. Thus, life satisfaction judgments should significantly change only when significant changes in one’s life circumstances occur, as opposed to transient changes. Our results support this model - measures of life satisfaction may not be unreasonably impacted by one's mood, and contain other information that may be a valid indicator of the quality of an individual’s life.

We are not suggesting that life satisfaction is the ideal index of healthy human functioning. We are arguing for the need for better arguments (also see - How Many Types of Happiness Exist?).

Be persuadable. Be open to changing your mind. But be discerning about what persuades you.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His latest book is The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self—not just your “good” self—drives success and fulfillment. For more, visit