By Benjamin Lennon
| “Don’t worry, be happy” goes the chorus of Bobby McFerrin’s classic hit of the same name. It’s a well-known song with a simple message. Yet to Laura Kubzansky, an associate professor of society, human development, and health in the Harvard School of Public Health, this message isn’t helpful because “not everyone lives in an environment where you can turn off worry.” Kubzansky studies happiness and well-being, and her concern is not that people will listen to McFerrin’s relaxing beat, but that the media will distill her research into a simple message that misses the point and puts the blame on people for not choosing to be happy.
So how exactly can we measure happiness? This has become an expanding field of study over the past few decades, and the methods range from simply asking people if they are happy to studying the tone of words used on social media. The most common subjective measure is a survey like the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire , which asks you to answer 29 questions on a 1-6 scale, your average score determining your happiness. This kind of survey is a way of measuring Subjective Well-Being (SWB), and while it gives you general idea of a person’s happiness, many researchers have pointed out its flaws: just like all subjective measures, there’s too much opinion involved. You might argue that happiness is an opinion, but some believe that people tend to over-report their happiness. Some researchers have tried to work around this by creating an objective measure of happiness. In one study, researchers from the University of California, Irvine challenged a long standing claim that conservatives were happier than liberals through objective means. They examined language used on twitter, searching for positive words as an indication of happiness, as well as pictures posted to Linkedin, looking for smiles that involved muscles near the eye, generally taken as an indication of sincere happiness. This study of behaviors instead of self-reports led them to conclude that liberals may actually have a slight edge in happiness.
The second problem with measures of SWB is that they don’t study what makes people happy. In order to accurately study happiness, you have to look at other, more objective, measures. This field is much more varied than the study of SWB. Many researchers have taken a look at measures of SWB and then correlated them with objective data about factors like heart disease, crime rates, and income inequality. The results probably won’t surprise you. In one study, researchers found that higher levels of happiness correlate with fewer blood-pressure problems . In Wilkinson and Pickett’s book: The Spirit Level, they look at measures of social ills that they think make people unhappy: obesity, crime, poor access to health care, etc., and they compare it with income inequality. They find that high rates of these social ills correlate with high income inequality, and from there argue that a more egalitarian society would have fewer social ills and thus be happier.
For researchers like Kubzansky, the goal is to “stay in the moment.” The research they do can allow them to improve the lives of themselves and others. Their results, however, have a much larger impact. The field of happiness studies is growing in both range as well as relevance. For years countries have been talking about dropping or modifying Gross Domestic Product as a way to measure national growth, but the question is always: What will we use to replace GDP? In 1971 the Kingdom of Bhutan dropped GDP in favor of Gross National Happiness, and since then has been the leader in studying its citizens’ happiness level. Is this the future for other nations? Maybe governments should be taking a page from Bhutan’s book. When it comes to measuring national progress, it might be time to adhere to the idea that it’s better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb instead of halfway up a ladder you don’t. Instead of continuing with a worn out indicator that will keep taking us to environmental degradation, let’s take a look at measures that will lead us to where we want to go: a healthier and happier society.