Why Surveys Can't Measure Happiness

Subjectivity makes surveys about human emotions notoriously unreliable—especially when it comes to informing public policy.

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.