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Engineering Happiness A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life

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Chapter 1

Measuring Happiness

When you can measure what you are speaking of and express it in numbers, you know that on which you are discoursing. But when you cannot measure it and express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a very meagre and unsatisfactory kind.

-Lord Kelvin, English physicist and mathematician

As with matter and energy, our understanding of happiness increases with the discovery of more and more precise measurement instruments. The great milestones of science, such as deciphering the motion of heavenly bodies, all began with the measurement of the object being studied. Without measurement, it is not possible to advance our understanding of the complex dynamics of the happiness seismogram.

There are at least seven ways to measure happiness. Each one helps to create a picture of what makes people happy. Let's see how these seven measurement devices work and the main findings each provides.

Recall-Based Self-Reports

The primary strategy for measuring happiness is very simple but has proven to be very useful. It is as easy as asking people twice a year the simple question: All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days? Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?

It may seem too simplistic an approach, and it is. It gives only an imprecise estimate of the average height of the happiness seismogram. The usual finding is that people are generally happy. We surveyed 103 people from Spain. In one of our questions, we asked them to rate their happiness on a 1 (low) to 10 (high) scale, and found that two-thirds gave an answer of 7 or higher.

Many researchers have developed more sophisticated self-report studies, attempting to take a more valid measurement of happiness. Ed Diener of the University of Illinois has conducted many such studies. He uses the following multiple-item questionnaire:

Indicate on a 1-7 scale [1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree] your agreement with each statement:

a. In most ways my life is close to my ideal.

b. The conditions of my life are excellent.

c. I am satisfied with my life.

d. So far I have gotten the important thing I want in life.

e. If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

The average of the five scores is a more precise estimate of happiness than the one-question version provides. Diener and colleagues have taken pains to show that these self-reported measures of well-being correlate reasonably well with other measurements of well-being, such as bodily measurements (levels of stress), evaluation of our happiness by friends and relatives, smiling, and experience sampling. Of course, self-reports can be biased in many ways. For instance, the emotion of the moment can have a disproportionate influence on the answer. If your partner is away on a long business trip, the momentary loneliness might lead you to answer that you are not that happy, even though you actually are. But, even taking the imprecision and potential for bias into account, the existing research suggests that, for many purposes, self-reported well-being is a useful indicator of individual happiness.

The usefulness of self-reports comes mostly from the vast quantity of data that have been collected using this method. Because collecting self-reports is cheap and easy, there is an ever-growing record of measurements taken in different countries, at different times, and from subjects experiencing all sorts of circumstances. These results comprise the content of the World Database of Happiness and the World Values Survey.

Studies based on these databases suggest that, across different countries, happiness is high among people with lots of friends, the young and the old, married and cohabiting people, the healthy, and the self-employed. Income has a moderate effect, although, as we will soon see, it is relative income that matters the most. Through this kind of approach, scientists have found that American millionaires living in huge, luxurious houses are barely happier than Masai warriors in Kenya who live in huts. Other research has attempted to put a price tag on overcoming adversity, suggesting that it takes millions of dollars to make up for the emotional turmoil of a relationship breakup or a job loss.

Another interesting finding is the relationship between happiness and age. When are we the happiest in our lives? The economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald tried to answer this question, examining data on well over a half million people from about seventy-two countries, both developed and undeveloped. They found that happiness follows a U-shaped curve over our lifetimes, or, for the more optimistic among us, a smile-shaped curve. In either case, happiness appears to dip to its lowest level in middle age.

They suggest that, on average, the low point of happiness occurs around age forty-four. The exact age varies from nation to nation and between genders, but it is always somewhere in middle age. After reaching middle age, happiness begins increasing, and by the time you reach an average of fifty years old, you can expect to be on the bright side of the curve again.

Although this U-shaped trend in happiness is certainly fascinating, it doesn't tell us anything about the causes of our happiness or why it should dip steadily until midlife before rising again.

One possibility is that individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses, and are happier in the second half of their lives after accepting their limitations and giving up on early aspirations that cannot be met. It could also be that cheerful people systematically live longer than unhappy people, although that wouldn't account for the decline in happiness leading to middle age.

What about the effect of education? If we compare a person who has not completed high school with a college graduate, the more educated person will be on average 0.3 standard deviations higher in the happiness bell curve. If happiness were measured as in the SAT test score, with the average at 600 points, then the less educated would have a 585 and the more educated a 615. In our knowledge-based society, education has a moderate but positive effect on happiness.

Happiness and Productivity

The December 2007 edition of Perspectives on Psychological Science features the work of researchers from the University of Virginia, the University of Illinois, and Michigan State University. Scholars analyzed the behaviors and attitudes of 193 undergraduate students at the University of Illinois and observed data from the World Values Survey.

Among the conclusions drawn was that those who classify themselves as 8 or 9 on a 10-point scale were more successful in some aspects of their lives than those who consider themselves to be 10 on the happiness scale. People who are just "too happy" may be less inclined to alter their behavior or to adjust to external changes even when such flexibility offers an advantage.

"The highest levels of income, education, and political participation were reported not by the most satisfied individuals (10 on the 10-point scale)," the authors wrote, "but by moderately satisfied individuals (8 or 9 on the 10-point scale)."

The 10s earned significantly less money than the 8s and 9s. Their educational achievements and political engagement were also significantly lower than those who considered themselves to be moderately happy or "happy-but-not-blissful." In other words, being joyful all the time does not necessarily provide any drive to succeed.

Happy people tend to be optimistic, and even though this is a good characteristic, it could mislead people to view their symptoms too lightly, seek treatment too slowly, or simply not look into what could be a happier future just because the present is good enough now. The bottom line is that if you are perfectly fine with the way things are going, then you most likely won't want to do anything to change.

Income and Happiness

These large surveys on life satisfaction allow us to look at the relationship between money and happiness. Here are the two questions for which we have answers: Are richer countries happier than poorer countries? Are rich people happier than poor people?

The answer to the first question is as follows. If a poor nation moves from $4,000 to $5,000 in income per capita, its life satisfaction increases significantly. No surprises here. However, if a nation five times richer moves from $20,000 to $21,000 in income per capita, the effect of the same $1,000 increase on happiness is tiny. To experience the same increase in happiness, the rich nation needs an increase of $5,000 in income per capita. In poor countries, additional income is mostly spent on basic goods. Hence, money does matter a lot for happiness. In rich countries, additional income is mostly spent on adaptive goods, whose effect on happiness is temporary. (On the distinction between basic and adaptive goods, see the end of chapter 4.)

If we look at the evolution of happiness as the income per capita increases, we see a similar pattern (see figure 1). Once the income per capita reaches a minimum threshold of around $20,000, the effect of additional income on happiness becomes very small. Thus, there is a large increase in happiness up to the income level that is required to satisfy the basic needs and only a moderate increase beyond that level.

Let's move to the second question. Are rich people happier than poor people? We can compare the happiness of the rich and the poor in a given country at a given moment. This analysis shows that the rich are significantly happier than the poor. This holds true for both rich and poor countries. Social comparison explains these data quite well. Thus, as a country becomes richer its total happiness increases until the income per capita exceeds $20,000. Past this point, the total happiness of the country increases very little with increases in income. Nonetheless, regardless of the average income, within the country, the richer are happier than the poor because of the effect of social comparison. This implies that for a moderately affluent individual, an increase in money does increase happiness, but it does so mainly because of social comparison.

For lack of better measures, income and gross domestic product have been used as rods to measure the success of a society. The former president of Harvard Derek Bok argues that research on happiness can inform public policy and potentially aid in improving citizens' quality of life. He examines the policy implications of happiness research for economic growth, equality, retirement, unemployment, health care, mental illness, family programs, and education. In the United Kingdom, Richard Layard advocates that the goal of public policy is to maximize happiness. Income is important to the extent that it contributes to happiness. For instance, devoting public funds to improve mental health may be more happiness-efficient than using these same resources to improve infrastructure. Layard also claims that, when it comes to happiness, policies that produce stability may be more important than those that produce growth.

On March 18, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy challenged conventional wisdom in saying that the gross national product (GNP) measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile. Forty years later, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan (nestled between India and China) adopted gross national happiness (GNH) in place of GNP as the measure for tracking its progress. Economic indicators such as GNP focus largely on market transactions and thus are biased in favor of production and consumption. In contrast, GNH attempts to measure the quality of human experience and well-being in its totality. Along with living standards, GNH includes education, health, good governance, ecology, culture, time use, community vitality, and psychological well-being in order to measure the progress of a country. His Majesty King Khesar, the fifth Druk Gyalpo of Bhutan, ended his coronation address with a prayer "that the sun of peace and happiness may forever shine on our people."

Culture and Happiness

Surveys over several years have consistently revealed that Danes are happier than Americans. Though one can speculate about the reasons why Denmark and other Scandinavian countries score near the top in level of satisfaction, one must be cautious about cross-cultural comparisons. Researchers have examined, for example, whether the word satisfied in English and tilfreds in Danish could convey different meanings.

An intriguing finding from the survey data is that, in spite of an endowment of more favorable objective factors that are usually associated with well-being, such as vacation days, health care availability, and income per capita, French people show a lower level of life satisfaction than Danes. We do not resolve the question of whether Danes are truly happier than French, which someday may be settled through neurobiological methods; instead, we focus on how an individual living in Denmark or in France could improve his or her level of happiness through choices that are informed by our laws of happiness.

Day Reconstruction Method

Surveys are the easiest and most widely used method to measure total happiness, but we would like to have a closer view of how happiness changes during the day. In other words, we would like to observe how the happiness seismogram goes up and down over time.

The Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman pioneered a new kind of happiness measurement approach, based on measuring, analyzing, and comparing how people spend their time and what kinds of affective experiences they have during distinct activities. Participants keep a diary of everything they do during the day, from reading the paper when they wake up to commuting, and even arguing with their bosses. Then they list their activities from the previous day, noting whom they were with, and rate the episodes on a range of feelings on a seven-point scale. The method aims to learn about people's daily lives and to rate how satisfied or annoyed, sad or joyful they felt.

A study using the day reconstruction method given to more than nine hundred women in Texas produced some surprising results. The women ranked the five most positive activities as being (in descending order) sex, socializing, relaxing, praying or meditating, and eating. Exercising and watching TV were not far behind (ahead of shopping and talking on the phone), but at the other end, curiously, taking care of their children ranked below cooking and only slightly above housework.

That may seem surprising, considering that parents tend to say their children are their biggest source of joy. Does that mean that parents are systematically lying about how much they enjoy raising their children? It is more likely the case that the joy of raising children is derived more from looking back and considering a lifetime of achievements rather than performing the day-to-day tasks of parenting. In other words, the daily grind of taking care of children-cleaning up after them, making sure they brush their teeth, and so on-is not necessarily a primary source of happiness, but the overall experience of being a parent may ultimately create a great deal of happiness.

Your happiness depends on not only what you are doing but also with whom. The same study that ranked the happiness derived from certain activities found that, on average, people enjoy their friends' company the most and, not surprisingly, their boss's the least. As we have all experienced, good company enhances the quality of any good experience. You enjoy the view from the beach, the concert, or even the cup of coffee more if you share those experiences with the right people.

The day reconstruction method takes all of these activities and social factors into account-as well as other factors, such as how well rested you are, which greatly influences day-to-day happiness-and determines an average rating of happiness throughout a given day. Looking at the evolution of happiness during the day, we conclude that the subjects of this study are not morning people, they really enjoy their lunch hours, and their happiest time is at the end of the day. Sound familiar?

Keep in mind that this study surveyed only women, so we have to be careful about generalizing based on the results, but it is a useful reminder of how much our happiness can change from moment to moment within a day.

As we have seen, recall-based self-reports and the day reconstruction method can produce very insightful results. But these methods can be unreliable, introducing bias into the results. Let's take a look at a method of measuring happiness that does not rely on memory.

Experience Sampling Method

Grace is an architect. She is deep in concentration, designing the staircase for a conference center. Suddenly, she is distracted by a beeper on her belt, which reminds her that she is supposed to complete a short questionnaire describing what she is doing at this moment and her current emotional state.

In the 1980s, hundreds of volunteers just like Grace agreed to carry beepers and "be bothered" at random times during the day. When the beeper sounded, these volunteers might have been commuting, in a meeting, writing on the computer, answering e-mails, or taking care of their children.

This "experience sampling" method is more complex to arrange and administer than the day reconstruction method, but it has the advantage of measuring the happiness experience in the moment (what we will call moment-happiness) directly, rather than relying on potentially faulty memory.

Using the experience sampling method, the psychology professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced "chick-sent-me-high-ee") made a major discovery in the area of happiness. By measuring the moment-happiness of his subjects directly, he noticed that their minds, when left unoccupied, wandered in chaotic ways from one state to another, often drifting toward negative feelings of boredom, anxiety, and depression. Analyzing the data, he identified the conditions that produced and sustained a particular positive state of mind, in which subjects reported being most happy. He called this state flow. According to Csíkszentmihályi, the mind naturally enters into a state of flow when (1) one is engaged in a task that is directed toward a goal, (2) the task poses a challenge (neither too easy nor too difficult), and (3) one receives feedback on progress toward the goal. During this state of mental engagement, time stops and all negative emotions are blocked. Given that the state of flow is both predictable and sustainable, Csíkszentmihályi essentially discovered a predictable method to eliminate negative feelings and increase happiness.

One study using the experience sampling method found the flow phenomenon to be remarkably common, regardless of culture, race, gender, or age. Elderly Korean women, Japanese teenage motorcycle gang members, Navajo shepherds, assembly-line workers, artists, athletes, and surgeons-all describe the experience in essentially the same words. To experience flow we must find the challenge in what we are doing and then focus on doing it as well as we can.

Obviously, creating flow is easier said than done, but understanding how it works allows us to increase the likelihood that the necessary conditions for flow (and happiness) will at least be present in our daily lives.

Using smart phones, Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University collected a large sample of experiences and associated happiness. They also measured "mind wandering." Their database currently contains nearly a quarter million samples from about five thousand people from eighty-three different countries who range in age from eighteen to eighty-eight and who collectively represent every one of eighty-six major occupational categories. Their findings confirm what had been found previously: happiness is high during sex, exercise, or socializing, or while the mind is focused on the here and now, and low during commuting or while the mind is wandering.

Suicide Rates

Believe it or not, suicide rates can be a reliable measure of happiness. According to a study by Mary Daly and Daniel Wilson of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, suicide rates correlate with many of the findings on the self-report measurement of happiness. Essentially, those experiences that make people happy lead to a decline in suicides, whereas experiences that make people unhappy cause an increase. For example, an increase of 1 percent in the unemployment rate increases the male suicide rate from 20 per 100,000 to about 46 per 100,000. Interestingly, there is a huge difference between male and female suicide rates-men are five times more likely to take their own lives-suggesting that, overall, women are happier than men.

Of course, to say that suicide is caused by unhappiness is in one sense obviously true but in another sense is an oversimplification. Certainly, happy people would not take their own lives, but people who are so unhappy that they would consider suicide are probably dealing with some form of mental illness. The English novelist Virginia Woolf, who committed suicide in 1941, left a suicide note expressing just how happy her life had once been, and her awareness that her mental illness stole that happiness. She wrote to her husband, Leonard, "I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came." Obviously, suicide rates represent a very blunt instrument with which to measure happiness, but they can provide some insight into the nature of happiness. Not surprisingly, suicide rates decrease with education and increase with the availability of firearms. When it comes to money buying happiness (or in this case, lack of money creating unhappiness), the authors found that relative income is more important than simply how much money someone makes. If the wealthiest 10 percent of the population gets richer, the suicide rate increases, confirming the impact of envy. On the other hand, if the poorest 10 percent of the population gets richer, suicide rates decrease. Indeed, the study is titled "Keeping Up with the Joneses and Staying Ahead of the Smiths: Evidence from Suicide Data."

Studies of Diaries

Another method of measuring happiness, albeit one that requires a certain degree of luck, is to analyze personal diaries. The epidemiologist David Snowdon is famous for the so-called Nun Study, a longitudinal study primarily of aging and Alzheimer's disease. He studied the diaries of 678 Roman Catholic nuns.

Although the diaries were first studied as part of Snowdon's research on Alzheimer's, the findings also turned out to be a rich source of information for psychologists trying to understand the effects of positive thinking and aging. They searched the writings for words that connote positive emotions (such as happiness, love, hope, gratitude, and contentment) and negative ones (sadness, hatred, fear, confusion, and shame). The results were impressive: This analysis showed that only 15 percent of the melancholic nuns made it to their eighty-fifth birthdays, but 90 percent of the happy nuns made it to that age. They concluded that the happy nuns lived an average of nine years longer than the unhappy ones (by comparison, nonsmokers live only three years longer than smokers).

Many other fascinating studies lend credence to these findings and support a link between happiness and physical well-being. Happy people tend to have higher levels of cortisone and other immunological defenses. Critically ill patients who are more optimistic tend to have (on average) better outcomes. One study even found that people who rated themselves as happy were able to keep their hands soaked in a bucket of ice-cold water for a much longer time than those who rated themselves as unhappy.

Body Measurements

Can you guess which physical activity uses forty-two different muscles moving at the same time? The high jump? The backstroke? Performing Bach's Prelude and Fugue in A minor? The answer is: smiling. The seemingly simple act of smiling is actually a complex, coordinated physical maneuver. And, more amazing, it is practically universal among human beings. In the 1960s, the psychology researcher Paul Ekman sought to explore the universal nature of emotions. While visiting isolated communities in Papua New Guinea, he confirmed that these indigenous people express emotions just as we do in Western cultures: shedding tears in sad moments or smiling when happy. Ekman found that there are nineteen distinctive ways of smiling, but only one of them is genuine, the so-called Duchenne smile. Even though it looks very similar to fake smiles, it is in fact slightly different because the muscles that generate it and the orders coming from the brain to make them move are distinct. Only when the ocular muscles at the corners of your eyes move does it mean that you are truly smiling out of happiness. All the other expressions are forced smiles of politeness, fear, sympathy, or some other emotion. Real smiles are involuntary and automatic, meaning that when we feel pleasure they naturally appear. In other words, the frequency and duration of Duchenne smiles could be a possible "objective" way to measure happiness.

Ekman conducted extensive cross-cultural studies of facial expressions in places as diverse as Papua New Guinea, the United States, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia, and the former Soviet Union. He showed photographs of facial expressions to people in different cultures and countries and asked them to judge the emotion underlying each facial expression. Across cultures there was agreement on the facial expressions associated with happiness, anger, disgust, and sadness. Even in isolated cultures such as those of the Dani of Indonesia and the Fore of New Guinea, who do not even have words for emotions, people correctly identified the emotion shown by a facial expression. The tool Ekman developed for measuring facial movement in anatomical terms has been used by numerous scientists.

Ekman's studies have revealed that, although we all may share expressions for certain emotions, we may differ greatly on what triggers them. Ekman posits that culture influences emotions in three ways. The first is display rules: what emotions can be shown to whom and in which contexts. Coping mechanisms to deal with emotions such as anger may also vary by culture. Finally, the triggers of emotions are also culturally variable.


While observing genuine smiles is a decidedly low-tech method of measuring happiness via bodily measurement, these days we may also avail ourselves of remarkably high-tech methods, such as directly observing brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.

Using this technology, researchers at University College of London found that people describing themselves as "truly, deeply, madly" in love not only rate their happiness higher but also have the brain waves to prove it. Volunteers had their brains imaged while they looked at photos of their romantic partners. As the subjects stared at the pictures, their brains lit up in areas that also activate during euphoria. Apparently, these intense romantic feelings make people very happy-head over heels or, more accurately, brain over heels!

The neuroscientist Richard Davidson sought to find which parts of the brain are associated with positive and negative emotions. He placed volunteers into an fMRI machine, induced positive and negative emotions with pictures and video clips, and observed their brain activity. He found that positive feelings correlate with brain activity on the left side of the prefrontal cortex, whereas negative feelings correlate with brain activity on the right side of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is somewhere in the front of our brains and above the ears.

In our quest to measure happiness objectively and precisely, these measures of brain activity seem to present the most promising advance to date. Future technological advances will no doubt provide more precise measurement of happiness, but for now the most satisfactory and seemingly valid measurement of moment-happiness is the difference in prefrontal cortex activity between the left and right sides of the brain, or "left-right brain asymmetry." Thus, we observe:

Our moment-happiness can be approximated by the difference in the levels of electrical activity on the left and right sides of the prefrontal cortex.

After examining the brain activity of monks who had extensive meditation experience, Davidson found that the monks had actually altered the structure and function of their brains and were happier than the average person. He also found that senior monks had greater left-right brain asymmetry than their junior counterparts. This suggests that it's not just that happy people are drawn to the monastery but that meditation and the monastic life may have made them happier. Of course, other passionately pursued endeavors may have the same effect, but for these men meditation did the trick.

Of all the people he measured, Davidson found that the French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard rated the highest in the difference between left and right prefrontal cortex activities, thus putting himself in the running for happiest man on Earth. And all without lottery winnings, flat-screen TV, or designer clothes.