Can we measure happiness objectively?

If you’re looking to gauge your success in life, it’s no longer enough to compare yourself with the neighbours. “Keeping up with the Jones” is no longer relevant in an era of big data and vast storage of information. Individuals can quantify their place in society at large via a range of metrics, and particularly economic ones. On an individual or national scale, the income or national economy is a (fairly) easy number to quantify, and there isn’t much subjectivity about how much money something is worth. Income tax statements and national budgetary documents are provided with reassuring regularity and are simple to conceptualise, and, for all of its faults, GDP does offer insight into the changes in the economy.

Financial measurements don’t define everything, of course. Reuters polled individuals in 23 countries in 2010, and found that only 4 in 10 see money as the chief measure of success for a person. This jibes with generally accepted wisdom; most people would argue that there’s more to life than wealth or possessions. Moreover, while financial measurements are easier to quantify, any suggestion that they’re an ‘objective’ definition of success is false. Wealth is an entirely arbitrary measure of success. It just happens that it’s much easier to quantify and thus build economic models to maximise it in a society, and as a result, policy-makers are treading on thinner ice when building social models to maximise more ethereal quantities like ‘well-being’, or ‘happiness’.

Happiness as a measure of success is certainly not a universally accepted paradigm. But as has been noted in a number of places, younger generations who are, for example, priced out of the housing market and saddled with student debt, happiness might be a measure of success they can reasonably aim at, when financial success is well out of reach. One might think that ‘Millennials’ might look to the sub-field of ‘happiness economics’ to help build a better society. But is it any more objective, or even distinct from wealth?>

A leading source of data about happiness is the annual ‘World Happiness Report’ ( I took a look at the results, as well as the input, to better understand why trends in the data exist. In general, it suggests that wealth and happiness tend to be fairly well correlated, both within nations and when rich and poor countries are contrasted. “Great!”, you might think, “we can rely on the easy-to-quantify economic metrics to maximise happiness”. But why is this the case? The results come from a multi-national survey, where the input question is phrased in a very specific way. The website ‘Our World In Data’ has a succinct summary:

The underlying source of the happiness scores in the World Happiness Report is the Gallup World Polla set of nationally representative surveys undertaken in more than 160 countries in over 140 languages. The main life evaluation question asked in the poll is: “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?” (Also known as the “Cantril Ladder”.)”

So inherent in this measure of happiness is a question about where you think you compare with other people in society. I would argue that this is going to bias the results enormously. How can an individual hope to conceptualise the happiness of another, without looking at the material possessions? Even if, hypothetically, they had a full picture of the exterior lives of everyone with whom they are asked to contrast themselves, they would still be unable to see the actual degree of interior happiness. So this comparison is based on subjective interpretation of observed proxies for happiness.

Is it any surprise, then, that richer countries are ‘happier’ by this metric? If the dominant paradigm of happiness has any materialist component, then this factor will dominate how an individual perceives their position on this ladder. How else could they place themselves on the ladder otherwise? Fundamentally, this kind of analysis requires inequality – to have any meaningful results, the happiness of one individual has to be ‘different’ to another person.

To put this another way, if economic factors are a significant determinant of happiness, then the corollary is that people have historically got happier and happier as economic growth has progressed. Let’s imagine an individual at the dawn of the industrial revolution compared to our modern lives. Since then, many aspects of life have changed; life expectancy has increased, education has become near-universal in many countries, and welfare systems have been introduced (these would be termed measures of ‘well-being’). But does any of this mean that we are bound to be happier than our historical counterparts? Presumably, if confronted with the same question (how happy are you on a ladder of 1-10), they wouldn’t be able to perceive the possible future lives we live, and wouldn’t naturally place themselves lower down the ladder.

What I’m getting at here is that the ladder analogy not only requires inequality to work, but also that it is necessarily subjective. As a scientist, I’m always interested in more objective, bias-free ways to measure the universe, so is there a more scientific way? The neurobiology of emotion is highly complex, but we have made some headway over the past decades to better understand the chemical precursors of happiness. Hormones such as Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphin, or Oxytocin are sometimes described as ‘happiness chemicals’. To my knowledge, no large-scale, multi-national study has been carried out to assess how the neurochemistry associated with happiness varies across differing individuals under differing standards of living. Given we still don’t fully know how these chemicals interact to produce ‘happiness’, such a large-scale survey would still be limited in terms of implications, but it would at least help address some key questions.

Of prime importance is the question of whether human biochemistry permits for one individual to be objectively happier than another? This has troubled thinkers for hundreds of years, and has given rise to the amusingly-named concept of the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’. Proponents of the treadmill argue that over the course of their lives, individuals tend to maintain a constant level of happiness, with fluctuations around the mean level as a result of specific life events. A biochemical investigation could test this hypothesis, as well as establish if the mean level (or ‘hedonic set point’) differs between individuals; are there fundamental differences in neurochemistry that permit some people to experience more sustained happiness than others?

The Hedonic treadmill idea is a potentially powerful argument against striving for progress at all costs. If every single individual experiences ups and downs, but essentially the proportion of their lives they spend ‘happy’ (in comparison with their average set-point) is the same, then why should we change where we are as a society? We could, instead, pick other metrics to define our success in life.

However, if this isn’t the case, and some individuals can attain a sustained life of chemical happiness, then we can rebuild social models to maximise the potential happiness at a given moment in the society, and find so called ‘Pareto-optimal’ (win-win) solutions. We could ascertain the actual conditions that best correlate with happiness, without needing to ask individuals to compare themselves with others; we could genuinely test whether financial wealth has any bearing on happiness.

These kind of questions are really in their nascent stage, since we simply don’t have a solid understanding of the neurochemistry of happiness. Moreover, given the inherent subjectiveness of any measure of ‘success’, they may be moot in the long run; happiness, after all, is just another quantity, and success is only defined as happiness if we choose to define it as such. I would be surprised, however, if over the decades to come, as neurology and big data move forward, if these questions remain unexplored by scientists and policy-makers. Think of the implications for sustainable development if it is shown that material possessions are (or are not) shown to be a key determinant of chemical happiness.

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