Economic growth, physical health and confidence in the future prospects of a person or country are all important factors in assessing and even comparing them. However, no institution, nation or group of people can really be properly understood without also factoring in a number of other elements. One of the key ones that is becoming increasingly looked upon by academics is happiness. Nevertheless, measuring happiness presents certain challenges. How and why should we bother with measuring happiness at all?
Measuring happiness is tricky because it relies on mapping subjective well-being. Of course, subjective well-being is just that: a subjective idea that will vary from person to person. In other words, measuring happiness in one individual could mean that their subjective well-being is recorded at a much higher level than another. Who could tell if this is truly accurate? Who is to say that the answer given is in any sense ‘wrong’? Shouldn’t we abandon the idea of measuring happiness as too complex or too nuanced?
No. This is because refraining from measuring happiness with the best tools available will result in a gap in scientific knowledge. Without some form of assessment of happiness and well-being, it would be impossible to compare the outcomes of certain long-term policy decisions, for example. One could not compare the differences between two countries undergoing different economic circumstances fully, either. From a political, sociological and from a sheer interest in humanity point-of-view, measuring happiness has never been so important. Let’s examine how it is done and delve into the methodologies on offer in a little greater depth.
How Measuring Happiness Is Carried Out
According to Mark K Setton, D.Phil, the CEO and founder of The Pursuit of Happiness, leading positive psychologists are focussing on the cultivation of positive emotions with a variety of techniques nowadays. The trouble is that well-being and happiness cannot be measured in a single snapshot to determine which of those techniques are most effective. Setton argues that happiness is rather like physical well-being: multiple measurements and assessments must be made to understand the body’s well-being in the round. Likewise, just asking someone how happy they feel would be overly simplistic. As such, his organisation backs the questionnaire approach whereby multiple questions are put to participants in study programmes. As data from these subjective well-being surveys is collated, so spikes and anomalies are evened out. Ideally, discrete data is collected which can then be quantified. Therefore, questionnaires should not ask open questions, such as “How happy are you?” Rather, they ought to ask participants to score themselves with an instruction to score their happiness level on a scale, for example, between one and ten.
There are plenty of these questionnaires that are now widely used by academics and scientific researchers to assess happiness levels in a survey’s participants. The Panas Scale is a common one. The Oxford Happiness Inventory is another. According to Todd B Kashdan of the Department of Psychology at the University of Buffalo, the 29-question Oxford Happiness Inventory, which was developed for field use in 2002, overlays some of the important factors involved in assessing oneself in terms of happiness. Kashdan argues that measures like self-esteem and sense of purpose are taken in the survey but that they are not properly differentiated from one another leading to an overly ambitious correlation between them. In spite of the criticism of the particular ways in which questionnaires are put together, few psychologists today would argue that they constitute the best way we currently have of quantifying the qualitative assessments needed to measure subjective well-being.
While the academic debate rages on about the best way of measuring happiness in various questionnaire forms, the scientific community continues to make these assessments in order to better understand happiness and how it impacts on both the individual and society as a whole.
Unifying the Methodologies
Of course, if one academic study into subjective well-being uses a particular questionnaire, then the results found in that sample group can only inform us of that group of people and of other groups which have been subject to assessments using the same methodology. If academics use their own questionnaires, then no matter how carefully the data they collate has been analysed, it is not possible to pool such datasets. Therefore, relatively simple questionnaire formats have been developed so that researchers can use the same scales and the same form of wording around their questions in order to obtain results which can be used together.
The Subjective Happiness Scale is a good example of this sort of approach. The questionnaire can be downloaded by anyone so long as it is for academic research and not for commercial use. It uses a simple scoring system of one to seven which cleverly allows people to place themselves in the middle of the scale, at number four, if they feel that is appropriate for them – not all scales allow for this. In addition, it allows researchers to ask negative questions, like those about being unhappy. All the researcher needs to do is to reverse the scoring system to continue to obtain viable and simple-to-understand results.
With small sample groups, this approach works very conveniently. For mass observations surveys, such as those which measure and compare happiness in every country of the world, it is essential. The the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has now developed academic guidelines so that data of a similar nature can be gathered. As such, if you want to know how happy women in South Africa rate themselves compared to retired men in Canada, it should be possible to do so. The OECD is charged with bringing about worldwide progress in eleven areas of well-being, such as employment, health, housing and civic engagement. It needs to understand happiness on a global scale, therefore. Hence the need for a consistent and unified methodology.
Since 2011, when the OECD published its ‘How’s Life’ report, it has been involved with standardising the ways in which the statistical data in many areas are collected, including those devoted to measuring happiness. As such the OECD has made great strides in helping us to understand human happiness around the world.