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A Tape-Measure for Well-Being

Pretty much everyone seems happy. In Australia, 93 percent of the population is either happy or very happy. In China, it’s 85 percent. Jordan: 86 percent. They’re chipper in Colombia at 92. Belarus is below average, at 64, but it still has a solid majority of happy campers. In the United States, 90 percent of us are happy and presumably steering clear of the sour-faced 10-percenters.

Those figures come from the latest round, released in April, of the World Values Survey, which has been tracking the beliefs and feelings of humanity since 1981. How do surveyors determine whether people are happy? They ask them. This is what social scientists usually do when they want to find out such things.

For example, a different survey, the Satisfaction With Life Scale, asks participants whether they agree, slightly agree, disagree, etc., with statements like “So far I have gotten the important things I want in life” and “If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.” The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire is similar, though longer, and includes statements like “I am always committed and involved,” “I find beauty in things,” and “I have very warm feelings towards almost everyone.”

The theory is that you are the best source of information about your own happiness. But is that the case?

In a paper titled “Beyond Life Satisfaction: A Scientific Approach to Well-Being Gives Us Much More to Measure,” José L. Duarte, a graduate student in social psychology at Arizona State University, raises some doubts (the paper is a chapter in the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Positive Psychological Interventions). He cautions against reducing human happiness to “a saccharine mix of self-reported satisfaction and positivity scores,” arguing that it is a “multifaceted construct grounded in facts of human nature that is unlikely to be measurable via a brief quiz.”

Duarte’s suggestions for improvement include peer interviews—that is, researchers questioning your mom, your boss, and your golf buddy about their own well-being to help determine how you’re doing. Another possibility he throws out is to glean information from smartphones. The buzzing devices in our pockets can track our activity levels, our sleep quality, where we go, whom we talk and text with, and for how long. Because researchers already know that factors like exercise and social interaction strongly contribute to well-being, maybe our phones can provide the harder data that surveys lack.

He also suggests giving more thought to how questions are weighted. For instance, in the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, “I feel mentally alert” counts the same as “I feel that life is very rewarding.”

Duarte elaborated via email, writing that “some people don’t think about happiness much, certainly not in a chronic, everyday ‘Am I happy?’ status-check sense, even in our culture. So when you ask them if they’re happy, they have to really stop and think, and might even be embarrassed by the question.”

Other researchers also want to pop the hood on happiness. Martin E.P. Seligman, who is largely responsible for the positive-psychology movement, has written a couple of books on the topic. He has also developed an acronym to explain well-being: perma, which stands for positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.

Seligman is grappling with an old conundrum that’s been mulled by the likes of Aristotle and John Stuart Mill. Is happiness more about hedonia—that is, pleasure—or eudaimonia, often defined as personal fulfillment? Or is it an amalgam?

Others have tried to quantify how certain life events, like getting married or making more money, affect well-being. Meanwhile, an attempt to boil happiness down to a single ratio was met with criticism that its sunny conclusions were based on dubious mathematics.

Maybe it’s simpler than all that. In a 2010 study, researchers rated the smiles of 196 baseball players using photographs taken in 1952. They then checked to see how long those guys lived. The ones who didn’t smile lived to an average of 72.9. Those who had partial smiles lived to 75. Those with genuine, also called Duchenne, smiles made it to 79.9. The answer might be staring us in the face.

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