EMOTIONS ARE NOTORIOUSLY difficult to measure, but that
doesn’t mean that researchers don’t try—especially when
it comes to human happiness. Even so, two economists
find that happiness research is patently unreliable because
people’s measure of their own happiness is so subjective.
“Happiness research usually asks subjects to rank their
happiness on a scale, sometimes with as little as three
points: ‘not too happy,’ ‘pretty happy’ and ‘very happy.’ But
not everyone who says they’re pretty happy feels the same,”
says Timothy Bond from the Krannert School of Management
at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Bond and Kevin Lang of Boston University in Massachusetts
applied statistics and microeconomic theory to nine
research studies about happiness. The studies look at the
effects on happiness of everything from getting married
to having children to coping with disability. They tested
each study’s results against data from sources such as the
General Social Survey and the World Values Survey. Bond
and Lang found that just slight adjustments in the data
within reported categories yielded unhelpful findings, such
as “the effect of the unemployment rate [on happiness] is
somewhere between very positive and very negative.”
The way people feel happiness is subjective, so surveys
that ask people to rate their own happiness will be flawed,
say Bond and Lang. And, yet, policymakers often use survey
data about happiness to inform policies about everything
from unemployment to inflation. Countries often gather
data on the happiness of their citizens—this past year the
United Nations released its 2019 World Happiness Report,
in which Finland was ranked No. 1.
Says Lang, “Our research shows that we simply cannot
use surveys to measure happiness in a way that makes
them meaningful as a social or economic indicator or that
can be used to guide policy.”
“The Sad Truth About Happiness Scales” appeared online
June 10, 2019, in the Journal of Political Economy.
Correction (January 12, 2020) - A previous version of this article omitted the word "Scales" from the title of the research study.