Quantifying the Unquantifiable? Quantifying the Unquantifiable?

Visual artist: Daan van Houten

Happiness Fascism#1 Happiness Fascism

Anouk Kootstra

measuring happiness
World Happiness Report
Gross Domestic Product
Gross National Happiness

Quantifying the Unquantifiable?

Alongside the rise of happiness fascism as discussed in this issue of the grid, recent years have also witnessed a spate of attempts to measure and quantify happiness. In 2012 the UN published its first World Happiness Report. This year the third edition was released and the report, counting 172 pages, established a readership of one and a half million people. The OECD now has its own index too. The accompanying ‘Better Life’-website includes an interactive tool to compare different countries on eleven aspects that supposedly determine happiness, such as health, work-life balance, safety, education and environment. In the last thirty years, more than 3000 empirical studies have been conducted, some of them bearing questionable titles like ‘How much happiness is there in the world?’ and ‘Causes and correlates of happiness’. In the meanwhile, ‘positive psychology’, ‘hedonic psychology’ or ‘happiness economics’ came into being as new academic fields for the study of quality of life, subjective well-being and happiness. All in all, the empirical examination of happiness seems to be booming.

Yet many will be critical towards this tendency to measure and quantify happiness, as well as cautious of its possible consequences. Is it possible to accurately assess something as abstract as happiness, let alone by the single question that is often used in cross-national survey programmes? To what extent are such measures valid and reliable? And even if measuring happiness is possible, what purpose does it serve? This article discusses this rising interest in empirical studies of happiness. I will shed light on how happiness is commonly defined and operationalised, and the pros and cons of these measurements. After having taken a look at what we are actually talking about (some stats!), I will argue that measuring happiness may well be very useful – at least if it replaces GDP as the primary indicator of countries’ progress and prosperity.

When psychologists operationalise happiness, they usually focus on either hedonia or eudaimonia (Delle Fave et al., 2010). The first refers to positive emotions or life satisfaction, whereas the latter understands happiness as meaning, self-actualisation and personal growth both individually and on a social level. A new framework integrating the two strands proposes that happiness can be reached through three pathways: pleasure, engagement and meaning. These theoretical advances have led to the development of validated measurement scales that can be used to grasp concepts believed to be closely related to happiness. Besides the Satisfaction with Life Scale there is for instance the Flourishing Scale, which uses eight questions to measure self-perceived success in important areas such as relationships, purpose, self-esteem and optimism. The Scale of Positive and Negative Experience measures the occurrence of positive and negative feelings. The validity and reliability of such scales are extensively studied among different subgroups of people, in different counties and over time as well as cross-validated using interviews. I think it is safe to say that these scales are able to relatively accurately assess these psychological concepts that are believed to be closely related to happiness, such as life satisfaction, subjective well-being, self-esteem, meaningfulness and optimism.

Here it is important to make a distinction between the measurement of happiness on the micro- and macro-level. Studies located on the micro-level aim to find individual determinants of happiness. Put simply, research in this field answers questions about what makes people happy. Being in a relationship does. Religiosity does too, but this can be attributed primarily to the social inclusion and sense of community that stem from church attendance. Unemployment causes unhappiness. And can money buy happiness? Most studies show it cannot, at least not after a certain threshold. Some money makes people happy, but after basic needs are met, more money does generally not increase happiness. Also, comparisons with the wages of others are shown to have a greater effect on happiness than absolute income, and winning a lottery is demonstrated to result in disruption rather than happiness.

Macro-level happiness research, on the other hand, aims at discovering differences in happiness between countries. In which countries are the inhabitants most or least happy, and why? There are two general ways of examining this. Firstly, you can rank countries on a set of indicators, such as safety, education, job opportunities, freedom or sense of community. This route has led to the development of the Human Development Index, the Legatum Prosperity Index and also the OECD’s Better Life Index. A second option is to use survey data and take the mean for all respondents within a country. Administering the scales as discussed above is very time consuming and expensive. Therefore, the World Values Survey includes only a single question to measure happiness. It leaves all definitional considerations about the concept to the respondents themselves when they are asked to indicate ‘how happy they generally are’: not at all, not very, rather or very happy. How respondents should interpret ‘happy’ is for them to decide, and what it exactly is that respondents base their answers on is practically unknown. To illustrate this point: in a recent paper, Delle Fave et al. (2011:187) wrote: ‘Despite significant advancements in understanding happiness at both the theoretical and methodological levels, one crucial topic has been neglected: what do lay people refer to, when they speak about happiness?’ Neglecting this issue seems indeed problematic, even more so because happiness remains such a complex and multifaceted concept. Nevertheless, this question has since 1981 been asked to over 400 000 respondents in over 60 countries. This does allow examination of how responses have changed over time, how they differ between countries, and how they relate to other characteristics of countries.

This is exactly what I will do, and by inspecting the relationship between GDP and happiness I will present an argument in favour of the empirical study and measurement of happiness. From an early age we have learned to think about the prosperity and wealth of nations in terms of GDP and economic progress. We distinguish rich and developed countries from poor and undeveloped countries, implicitly assuming that life is better and happier in the first group of countries. The graph below shows the GDP per capita, obtained from the IMF in 2014, and average happiness scores, as gathered by the World Values Study in 2014, for 58 countries. Uzbekistan and Mexico score highest on happiness, whereas Kuwait and Singapore have the highest GDP per capita. If countries with a higher GDP per capita would indeed have happier inhabitants, we would see a steep line from the left bottom towards the right upper corner of the graph. The five happiest countries are all rather relatively poor, and the data shows only a weak positive correlation between GDP per capita and happiness. Additional calculations indicate that only 1% of the happiness of a country’s citizens is explained by GDP per capita.

This shows that the level of happiness of a country is only very weakly related to its GDP per capita. This simple analysis, though largely corroborated by scientific evidence, demonstrates that thinking of rich countries as happy countries is not very accurate. The Easterlin paradox, which suggests that in the long run an increase in income does not result in increased happiness, implies that after basic needs are met, policy should shift the focus from an increase in GDP to an increase in life satisfaction of citizens. In 1972, Bhutan was the first (and yet still the only) country that introduced the Gross National Happiness as a development model on which the country’s planning and policy is based. The focus lies on building an economy that serves Buddhist spiritual values instead of economic growth. Methodological issues relating to the validity and reliability of the happiness measures notwithstanding, our attempts to quantify happiness could hopefully contribute to the idea that the prosperity of countries should be understood in terms of the happiness, well-being and life-satisfaction of its citizens rather than evaluated by economic and material motives. In 1968, months before his assassination, this idea was beautifully expressed by Robert Kennedy, in a speech at the University of Kansas:

Our Gross National Product […] counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Anouk Kootstra is currently a Phd researcher at the University of Manchester. Her thesis is called 'The conditionality of solidarity: how public support for the welfare state is affected by economic austerity and social diversity'. She is also working as a GTA, instructing seminars at the course 'Making Sense of Politics' and marking the second year 'Politics Project'. 

Work cited

Borooah, V.K. (2006). How Much Happiness Is There in the World? A Crosscountry Study, Applied Economics Letters, 13:8, pp. 483-488.

Delle Fave, A., Brdar, I, Freire, T, Vella-Brodrick, D. and Wissing, M.P. (2011) The Eudaimonic and Hedonic Components of Happiness: Qualitative and Quantitative Findings, Social Indicators Research, 100, pp. 185-207.

Hills, P. and Argyle, M. (2002). The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire: A Compact Scale for the Measurement of Psychological Well-Being, Personality and Individual Differences, 33, pp. 1073-1082.