On a scale of 1-5, are you a 5? Does that mean you’re happier than the person next to you, who put his happiness at 4? Are you sure? How do you know?
What if you have just come out of a major depression and are feeling pretty damn 5 about life for a change? Are you as happy as the woman who dances her way into every party, hands in the air, shouting woooooo? Where does her happiness fall on that 1-5 scale?
How can we measure happiness?
The study of happiness is flavor du jour in psychology and that’s cool. The pursuit of happiness is universal, and it’s right there, written into America’s Declaration of Independence. But as researchers start weighing and measuring happiness in laboratories, we’re getting into some very murky areas.
In my other psychology blog, The Introvert’s Corner, I wrote about new research that finds that suggests that extroverts tend towards extremes more than introverts. In other words, given a Likert-type scale, extroverts are more likely to circle the choice on one end or the other than introverts. And even when they are asked which word in a pair attracts them most, extroverts go for the more hyperbolic word: sweltering over hot or beautiful over attractive.
Researchers tell us that extroverts are happier than introverts, but this study brings that into question. Maybe extroverts are just more extreme than introverts.
Or maybe extroverts really are happier than introverts. But how do we measure that to know for sure? Scientific research is supposed to provide empirical data, but self reports are subjective.
Can you measure happiness by how much a person smiles? I’ve seen people smile as a way to distance themselves from their own pain. I remember one woman I know smiling as she described her husband’s emotional abuse. She was smiling but she sure didn’t look happy. The tears in her eyes were a giveaway.
And women are socialized to smile more than men; like many women, I’ve had complete strangers—men—tell me to “Smile!” (So annoying.) Is a nonsmiling woman less happy than a nonsmiling man? And isn’t it possible to be happy without showing it?
And what about calm happiness compared to giddy happiness? How do you compare the two? Is lazy Sunday morning happiness more or less happy than hands-in-the-air party happiness? Is the happiness of socializing more nourishing than the happiness of solitude? Is that woman on the dance floor having more fun than the one having an intense conversation in the corner? Is the person who stays home more or less happy than the one who goes to the party and slams back a dozen beers for fun?
And maybe you remember the research that finds the happiest places in the U.S. have the highest suicide rates? What’s that about?
How do we figure this stuff out?
Is there a part of the brain that reflects emotions? Could we isolate brain activity that indicates happiness? If so, can we compare the happy neurological activity of one person to that of another? How similar are our brains? And even if the brain activity is comparable, is it triggered by the same things? If it’s not, wouldn’t that mean that all the research in the world can’t help us learn to be happy?
Toss medications into the mix and the wicket gets stickier yet. Is the happiness of someone on antidepressants fake happiness? Does it count?
I’ve been chewing over this problem for a while and don’t know the answer, but I sure am intrigued by the question.
What do you think? Can happiness be reliably empirically measured? How?
Photo by Mattox.