But, can we really pin down such an elusive, deeply personal experience?
Don’t worry, science has defined happiness for us.
The literature romantically describes it as your reported “life satisfaction in combination with the frequency of negative to positive affect experienced.” In other words, happiness is how fulfilled you feel with your life alongside how many good moods and emotions you have versus bad ones. So, the next time someone asks how you’re doing, just say:
“My positive affect is high and I feel satisfied within my life’s domains.”
And, that’s not all. Never one to follow the crowd, science has renamed the emotion subjective well-being (SWB). SWB considers people’s perceived quality of life, both emotionally and cognitively. Being subjective, this definition doesn’t account for more objective criteria, like health or living conditions.
So, how can you measure SWB?
SWB = A person’s life satisfaction + affect balance
Life satisfaction measurements usually involve self-reported questionnaires. The questions explore a person’s bigger picture, long term judgments of their fulfillment within certain areas of their life (for instance, career or family).
Affect balance looks at the ratio of perceived positive to negative moods and emotions a person experiences, usually in the short term. This can also be measured with self-reported questionnaires or with self-reported tests like the Positive Affect Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS). In PANAS, respondents rate how strongly they feel on each of 10 positive and 10 negative emotional states (ex. very slightly to extremely).
However, self reports face one major problem: People lie. Even when we mean well, human beings can’t even help it. People may feel inappropriate or embarrassed by their true responses, or want to please the researchers by giving them whatever they believe is a “good” answer. Even subconsciously, learned social pressures can make respondents select the answers they think are more desirable.
So, did the poets have it right -- is happiness really unmeasurable?
Science says “Well, not really.” There are several techniques that can be used alongside self reports to add validity to a person’s answers.
The self report questions themselves can offer traps for contradictory answers. Many offer up the same question multiple times, in different phrasings. For example, if a person says once that they “feel very outgoing in groups,” but later says “they feel very introverted around others,” their answer can be discredited.
Informant reporting has close friends/relations provide insights on a respondent’s lifestyle, mood, and emotions. That way, if both a subject and their sister say that they are irritable lately, it’s more likely that they are truly cranky.
Another method is called Experience Sampling, in which a beeper triggers subjects to report their mood and activities at specific times throughout the day. This on-the-spot tactic provides a more natural “in situ” method, removing some of the pressure on respondents to please researchers as well as their tendency to act differently in a controlled laboratory environment.
Your happiness has been validated.
Despite questionable pop culture headlines, happiness keeps getting more accurately defined in the scientific community. On the bright side, it’s only going to get more positive with the rise of big data and continually improving methods for validating reports.
So, can we harness happiness measures to drive positive change in the world? What do you think?