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Mark Holder, Ph.D.
Mark Holder, Ph.D.

Measuring Happiness: How Can We Measure It?

Five approaches researchers use to measure happiness

My university students came to me with a concern. They informed me that another professor had told them that you can’t measure happiness. This is a real concern for me; if you can’t measure happiness, then I’m out of a job. As a researcher, I can’t study something that can’t be measured.

“You can’t measure happiness.” I hear this a lot. What is interesting to me is that professors, researchers, and the general public never doubt that you can measure depression, anxiety, and stress. But many are reluctant to accept that happiness is measurable.

Researchers have attempted to measure happiness with five approaches:

1. Biological. If you come to my lab and I offer you a Popsicle, don’t take it. Our freezer is filled with frozen specimens of undergraduates’ saliva and urine. We’re looking for the biological markers, such as hormones and neurotransmitters, for happiness. So far, researchers have had only minimal success in identifying the biological markers of happiness. What we do know is that the markers for happiness aren’t the same as for depression. For example, if low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin predict depression, high levels of serotonin don’t predict happiness. This is important. It suggests that happiness and depression are not opposite ends of a single continuum, but are better thought of as related, but independent, dimensions.

George Keith/ Commons Wikipedia/ Happy Baby
Source: George Keith/ Commons Wikipedia/ Happy Baby

2. Behavioral. Researchers have used behaviors to estimate happiness. Behaviors such as frequency of smiling, laughing, and helping others have been examined. When the use of emojis is studied, the results suggest that Hawaii is the happiest state, and Louisiana the least happy. When hundreds of tweets are analyzed, researchers find that Mondays are linked to low levels of happiness, and daylight saving time results in a happiness boost.

3. Implicit Measures. Disguised measures, in which people don’t even know that their happiness is being assessed, have been developed. These have been successfully used to assess racism. Implicit measures typically assess reaction times in connecting positive and negative terms to oneself and others. However, implicit measures haven’t proved to be effective in assessing happiness.

4. Other Reports. Asking others to rate a person’s happiness has been useful. For example, for young children, we ask their parents and teachers to rate their children’s happiness.

5. Self-Reports. By far the most common way that researchers assess happiness is through self-reports. Using multiple-item scales or a single question, we simply ask people about their level of happiness. People think about their happiness, and it is a subjective state, so it makes sense to ask them about it. But this approach presents challenges: For example, when people were asked, “Looking back at your life as a whole, overall how happy are you?” the answers they gave changed if they found a few coins at a photocopy machine that the researchers had planted there. Now, finding a few coins shouldn’t have a significant impact on one’s happiness when considering the decades of one’s life. But it does change the answers people give. We are disproportionately impacted by the most recent events of our lives.

The development of measures of happiness has allowed researchers to assess happiness. But measuring happiness is neither simple nor easy.

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About the Author
Mark Holder, Ph.D.

Mark Holder, Ph.D., leads a research team at the University of British Columbia dedicated to understanding and enhancing happiness.

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