How do you measure happiness?

danish girl
Denmark ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world. See more emotion pictures.

The Danes must be doing something right. In 2008, Denmark ranked as the happiest nation on the planet, according to the World Map of Happiness and the World Values Survey. The same year, the Scandinavian country came in at No. 2 on the World Database of Happiness, barely beat out by nearby Iceland. These happiness surveys polled people around the globe on -- you guessed it -- how happy and satisfied they are with life. Folks in Denmark showed an impressively high degree of social connections, career satisfaction and political and economic stability -- all of which are known to promote happiness [source: Weir and Johnson].

But what does it even mean that the Danish consider themselves happier than a lot of other people around the world? What were the surveys measuring, exactly? According to Webster, happiness is "a state of well-being and contentment." That emotional state the dictionary refers to is arguably different for everyone. At the same time, we know the physical effects of happiness; humans smile and laugh as a natural sign of glee. Certain physiological reactions, such as increased activity in the brain's left prefrontal lobe and decreased amounts of cortisol (a stress hormone) coursing through the bloodstream, happen when we're happy.


Yet, those physical indications of happiness are temporary, just like the feeling of pleasure fades after watching a heart-warming film with friends or opening a birthday present. Evaluating happiness in terms of consistently finding fulfillment in the sum of life's events is harder to grasp. Someone can't communicate it with a single grin or giggle. Consequently, researchers wishing to measure happiness have to go straight to the source.

Quantifying happiness most commonly relies on self-reporting. Happiness surveys such as the Revised Oxford Happiness Scale ask a comprehensive set of questions, while the Satisfaction with Life Scale poses only five. Generally, these polls ask people to rate their satisfaction about various aspects of their lives on a scale. For example, one of the most critical questions asked in the World Values Survey is:

"Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, rather happy, not very happy or not at all happy?" [source: World Values Survey]

In the here and now, someone may be perfectly content, but who's to say that life won't throw a devastating curve ball in the future? For a more robust happiness gauge, some researchers have gotten a little more personal.



Reflection vs. Experience in Measuring Happiness

traffic jam anger
Happiness states shift throughout daily experiences.

Psychologists and scholars have questioned the accuracy of self-reported happiness, considering that it's a highly transient, subjective emotion. Think about what would happen if you polled people on personal happiness while they were driving in rush hour traffic versus after leaving a Saturday afternoon movie. Their emotional state might impact their responses, with the drivers emerging as the less satisfied set.

Consider the Satisfaction with Life Scale, developed psychologist Ed Deiner. It asks people to rate the following five statements on a 1-to-7 scale, from not true to absolutely true:


  • In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
  • The conditions of my life are excellent.
  • I am satisfied with my life.
  • So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
  • If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

The higher the score, the greater amount of satisfaction someone supposedly has with life.

To account for people's emotional ebbs and flows, some researchers use experience sampling to measure happiness [source: Wallis et al]. This breaks down global contentment into periodic happiness check-ups. By contacting pollsters randomly over time or having them record daily activities and corresponding enjoyment, psychologists can get at the happiness question from another angle.

Framing happiness in terms of timely events, instead of reflective assessments, can alter the outcomes. For instance, a Time Magazine survey and a Princeton University study both dealt with the happiness effects of sex. Time asked respondents about it from a reflective stance, whereas Princeton integrated experience sampling. In the Princeton survey, sex ranked as participants' most positive activity [source: Wallis et al]. The Time respondents, on the other hand, rated it far lower. The Princeton participants weren't necessarily having a better time in bed than the Time participants; rather, since the pleasurable romp was fresher in their minds, the positive emotional effects may have registered more strongly.

Similar inconsistencies between real-time experience and memory also appear in Harvard University's Grant Study that has followed 268 male students for 72 years. Digging into specific facets of their psyches -- unmet career aspirations, sexual inhibitions, fractured relationships -- revealed anxieties, insecurities and loss [source: Shenk]. Yet, time and again, men's global happiness assessments rang positive; few would change much about their lives and have found contentment in old age. From that, it seems that surviving those bumps and bruises brought the most fulfillment in the end.

Condensing happiness down to a number or ranking can discount the intricate formula that goes into true contentment. Scoring a happiness high is a dice roll influenced by genetics, personality and plain old luck. But a trip to Denmark might not hurt the odds.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Bond, Michael. "The Pursuit of Happiness." New Scientist. Nov. 4, 2003. (May 22, 2009)
  • Carr, Alan. "Positive Psychology." Psychology Press. 2004. (May 22, 2009)
  • CBS News. "And the Happiest Place on Earth Is…" June 15, 2008. (May 22, 2009)
  • Economist. "Happiness (and how to measure it)." Dec. 23, 2006. (May 22, 2009)
  • Max, D.T. "Happiness 101." The New York Times Magazine. Jan. 7, 2007. (May 22, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic Women's Healthsource. "Older, Wiser -- Happier." Mayo Clinic. Vol. 12. No. 12. December 2008.
  • Shenk, Joshua Wolf. "What Makes Us Happy?" The Atlantic. June 2009. (May 22, 2009)
  • Wallis, Claudia et al. "The New Science of Happiness." TIME. Jan. 17, 2005.,9171,1015832,00.html