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How do you know if you’re happy?

Notice that that’s a different question from “what is happiness,” about which I wrote last week.  Seems like a simple question, no?  But it’s harder than we might imagine, and that was the stuff of my happiness class today.

To begin, know that we’re going to be imperfect at measuring happiness.  But that’s not different from other measurement. I know how to stand on my scale in ways that change my weight by a couple pounds.  Blood tests sometimes give the wrong answer.  The weight of a kilogram keeps changing.  (Don’t believe it? Read here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/23/worlds-roundest-object-perfect-sphere_n_3804690.html). Why would I expect perfection with happiness when we can’t get it with those simpler things?

OK, if we’ll be imperfect in measuring happiness, what’s the least imperfect way of getting at it?  Asking an honest person who is aware about the moment.  Don’t ask how happy someone was at some point in the past.  We forget and so if we ask about past happiness it will be as imperfect as our memories.  Ask people who are paying attention.  Ask people who want to tell the truth.

There are still lots of problems.  How do we know if my 7 on a happiness scale means the same thing yours does?  We don’t.    But if 50 people sitting in my class say they are a 7 on a happiness scale and if 50 others randomly assigned to my friend’s class say they are a 3 on my happiness scale we start to believe that the 50 in my class actually are happier.  (Ah, bribes work.) And that’s good enough for me, because it’s all about me! “Good enough” is an important phrase here as it is in other areas of measurement.  To what end are we using the measure? 

Were you expecting a different answer (“brain scans!” “movement of facial muscles!” “reports of the person’s friends!”)? Well ask yourself how you would know if those were good measures.  You know because when people say they are happy, you notice that their brains, muscles, and friends are doing particular things.  If the brain lights up in a particular way and the person (honest! asked about now!) says “I am not happy” why would you believe the scan instead? The gold standard here is the report of the person.

I think to many of us that’s counter-intuitive.  Brain scans and muscle movement seem so precise, so they must be better measures.   But…just precision of a measure is different from accuracy.  I can get a very precise count of my fingers, but that doesn’t tell me anything about my height.  A second difficult, I suspect–Isn’t science about biology and that kind of stuff?  Well, no.  Science is about a way of acquiring knowledge, and that can method can be applied to all sorts of different stuff.  It’s just that when we take science in high school it tends to be about chemistry, biology, or physics, so we conclude that those are what science is about.

We can measure happiness by asking people if they are happy.  It won’t be perfect, but it beats the alternative and is often good enough.






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