The Value of Measuring Happiness and Well-Being

By Maureen A. Nolan

Three times a day at random intervals, like a tap on the shoulder from an overly involved friend, a link to a survey arrives via text. Then come the questions: How do you feel right now? Do you want to do what you are currently doing? Do you have to do what you are doing? In the last five minutes, how many things have you focused your attention on?

For a few weeks, students in Professor of Government Gary Wyckoff’s class on the pursuit of happiness answered dozens of survey questions from Track Your Happiness, a research project created by a Harvard University psychology doctoral student. For their diligence, the students received data about the ebb and flow of their personal happiness and a chance to contribute to the burgeoning field of happiness and well-being scholarship — one in which Hamilton is making a mark.

Arthur Stone ’74 is prominent in the discipline. He is a psychology professor, researcher and director of the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for Self-Report Science, as well as a member of the Center for Economic and Social Research. Hamilton Professor of Economics Stephen Wu, who has been conducting well-being research for about five years and has published numerous papers, is co-editor of the International Journal of Wellbeing. He’s also published a study with Hamilton Professor of Economics Paul Hagstrom. And there’s Wyckoff, whose class draws students from across the disciplines, and Richard Werner, the John Stewart Kennedy Professor of Philosophy, who also teaches a course on happiness.

Despite its new age-y ring, happiness and well-being are areas of serious interdisciplinary research, particularly among economists and psychologists. The field is of interest to entities as weighty as individual governments, the National Academies of Science and the United Nations, which published its second World Happiness Report in 2013. “This report,” the document states, “offers rich evidence that the systematic measurement and analysis of happiness can teach us much about ways to improve the world’s well-being and sustainable development.”

Major issues in play include the use of well-being data to inform public policy and to measure how nations are faring as a supplement to gross domestic product. “If the economy is growing, people have higher incomes and more people have jobs, does that necessarily mean we’re all better off?” Wu asks. “And the question would be — what if we’re working more hours, we have higher incomes, but we have higher stress levels? And perhaps our health isn’t as good, and the environments we live in are more pressure-packed, and we have medicated more. Does that necessarily mean that we’re better off? I think everybody could agree that we should be asking those questions. Whether it’s easy to measure them or not might be a harder one.”

For average citizens, happiness and well-being research has produced findings that are at the very least intriguing and possibly useful — for instance, how money affects well-being, how age affects well-being and which states have the happiest residents. For anyone with the appetite, there are reams of data to graze on and more studies on the way. “The growth in terms of scientific publications has accelerated quite dramatically in the last 20 years,” says Stone, who was on the Hill in June when Hamilton hosted the second annual International Wellbeing and Public Conference of the Journal of Wellbeing.

Wu, whose specialties include health and health care, was drawn to subjective well-being research through work that involved self-reported medical data. He says there’s established research literature among medical specialists that shows self-reports have meaning. In 2011, Wu and economist Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick published research about well-being and mental health throughout the country using data from a random sample of 1.3 million Americans. They found that Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Colorado, Alaska and Tennessee had relatively high levels of well-being. The states with the lowest levels? California, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia and Missouri. “When individuals’ incomes are held constant, high-GDP states in our data are discernibly less happy,” the study’s introduction says. The study doesn’t get at the why of it all.

In other research, Wu and Lewis Davis of Union College studied how people feel when their incomes are stacked up against the earnings of others in a similar group. A lot of research has shown that as your income rises to a certain point, you tend to have greater happiness and life satisfaction, Wu says. But when others around you, for instance people in your neighborhood, have higher incomes, you feel worse. “What I guess our contribution is in this paper is to say: might it depend on who your reference group is? Whom do you actually compare to?” Wu says.

He and Davis looked within racial and ethnic categories and found that whites and Hispanics did indeed feel worse than others in the group with higher income. “But for blacks, you actually find this interesting result where there’s like this solidarity effect,” Wu says. A black person, even after controlling for his or her income, felt better when others in the group had greater incomes.

Getting older seems to make you feel better, too. In a study published in 2010, Stone and other researchers found that evaluative well-being (think life satisfaction) increases after age 50, which was consistent with findings in other studies. Researchers often refer to the “U” shape of happiness, with happiness bottoming out in the 40s. According to the study by Stone and his colleagues, stress and anger steeply declined from when people were in their early 20s. Worry was elevated through middle age and then declined, and sadness stayed essentially flat, the study found.

“Take a look at that age curve. Something seems to be going on at middle age, or middle-late age, at around age 50, and we really don’t understand why the level of stress and worry that people have drops off so much,” Stone says. “Now you can speculate; you can say ‘It’s the kid leaving the house’ or ‘It’s retiring,’ but those things don’t explain it.” Is it worth figuring out what things are going on that make people feel better about their lives and enjoy them more? Stone’s answer would be yes.

Doing that requires a reliable way to measure data, and Stone’s expertise includes self-reporting, which is at the heart of subjective well-being research. Much of his work has been to develop techniques for the measurement of how people are doing day-in and day-out.  “Subjective well-being” is Stone’s preferred term; happiness and well-being are among others used in the field. Well-being usually is defined as having a variety of components, for instance, longevity, healthy behaviors, mental and physical illness, connectedness and productivity.

The most often discussed types of subjective well-being are evaluative well-being (or life satisfaction) and experienced (or hedonic) well-being, Stone says. Life satisfaction is a person’s assessment based on stepping back, reflecting and then, frequently, positioning his life on a scale from 0 to 10. Experienced well-being is how a person feels throughout the day (as in the Track Your Happiness survey). “I’ve been very involved on the experiential side, this day-in and day-out stuff, in part because a lot of the techniques that I use involve monitoring people in the real world while they go about their everyday activities,” Stone says.

Until the last couple of decades, measures of subjective well-being have not had much impact on societies, he says. Countries, states and cities judge how well they are doing based on GDP largely because it’s an objective measure of goods and production. “Economists have a very big impact on the government. And for the longest time they’ve had very, very little interest in measures of subjective things, in part because there are some obvious shortfalls with subjective measures: People can lie, right?” Stone says.

Still, economists and other scholars have started to ask whether money and economic growth are the best ways to measure how well people or policies are doing. “A lot of people have concluded that there are other things that are important to people that are not picked up by economic growth,” Stone adds. “Economic growth is important, there’s no doubt about that, and no one is suggesting that subjective well-being measures replace economic measures. They’re always talked about as supplements.”

Subjective well-being data are useful, but before they become an official government statistic, issues with self-reporting need to be worked out, says Stone, who chaired a National Academy of Sciences panel that looked at self-reported well-being data. Its report, issued in December 2013, found that while self-reported well-being survey data would be valuable to inform policies, “the panel also recognizes that measurement approaches are not yet fully mature, which generates concerns about their unqualified adoption at this time.”

Research by Wu and Oswald, conducted in 2010 and related to well-being across the country, showed that subjective well-being measures lined up with objective data, and Wu says more and more people are convinced that well-being actually can be measured, although there are still some skeptics among academics.

Well-being self reports are not so different from other kinds of data that have been widely used for years, Stone notes. “We do market research all the time where we’re asking people their opinions. We do health research and ask people about their pain. The FDA uses that information to decide what treatments are effective. So it’s not as if self reports are this brand new untried thing on the market,” he says. “They’ve been around for a long time, and it’s time that we took a look and saw what kinds of new insights we could have regarding what policies do.”

Stone sees a growing consensus that the two types of subjective well-being data are probably worthwhile to collect. “And it’s already being done in many studies around the United States — very large-scale government-funded studies, like the health and retirement study.” The British government has already started piloting this in 80,000 people with a very short subjective well-being tool.

The flip side of well-being research — misery — may be the more important thing for governments to consider, Stone suggests. “It’s not just about making people deliriously happy. It’s seriously about trying to track what kinds of things help people become happier but also avoid misery. And that’s an important shift that’s happening in the field — it’s about alleviation of misery and identifying where the misery is and policies that are associated with it,” he says.

The panel Stone chaired for the National Research Council said that strongly. “As emphasized throughout this report,” the document says, “The panel believes the most compelling case for SWB (subjective well-being) data is its potential to identify populations that are suffering and to help in the study of the sources of that suffering.”

Keeping Tabs on Happiness

Answer 50 short surveys at a clip of three a day, and Track Your Happiness will compile the data into graphs that show your happiness relative to your location, activities, days of the week and other circumstances. You’ll get text messages telling you when to take the online survey. Psychologist Matt Kilingsworth, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, created the research project in 2009 when he was a doctoral student at Harvard University. Patrick Bedard ’14 completed the surveys as a student in Hamilton Professor Gary Wyckoff’s pursuit of happiness class and had fun with the assignment, which involved comparing personal data with more theoretical readings. “After you look at all of the data, there really are some distinct trends that start to emerge that I thought were surprising,” says Bedard, who double-majored in public policy and communication and now works in the insurance industry. To plot your happiness, sign up at trackyourhappiness.org.

Hamilton Professor of Economics Stephen Wu has published a number of studies about subjective well-being. Here is a look at some of his work. If it rings a bell, that may be because several of the studies have been featured in The New York Times and other national and international media.
The happiest states and countries have high suicide rates.

In “Dark Contrasts: The Paradox of High Rates of Suicide in Happy Places,” published in 2011, Wu and his co-authors show that Iceland, Ireland, Switzerland, Canada and the United States have relatively high happiness — and high suicide — rates. U.S. states with residents who are generally more satisfied with their lives have higher suicide rates than states with less satisfied residents. Wu and co-authors Andrew Oswald, of the University of Warwick, and Mary C. Daly and Daniel Wilson, of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, suggest that one’s personal happiness protects against suicide but the level of others’ happiness is a risk factor. “Personal unhappiness may be at its worst when surrounded by those who are relatively more content with their lives,” the paper states. It appeared in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

Pregnancy is associated with an increase in happiness for white and Hispanic women, but not for African-American women.

Wu and Hamilton Professor of Economics Paul Hagstrom recently published a study of the relationship between pregnancy and life satisfaction for U.S. women of childbearing age. They found strong differences by race and ethnicity — differences not explained by income level, age, education or marital status. “There is the evidence that racial differences in the effects of pregnancy on emotional and social support from others can partly explain this result,” they write.

Happier people are more likely to buckle up.

In a working paper dated May 2011, Wu, Oswald and three other researchers say they provide “the first evidence of a powerful connection between happiness and risk avoidance.” They looked at data for 300,000 Americans and found that the less satisfied they were with life, the less likely they were to wear a seatbelt. “Happiness leads them to protect themselves; unhappiness leads them to be rationally careless with life,” the paper’s introduction says. The other researchers are Robert J.B. Goudie and Sach Mukherjee, both of the University of Warwick, and Jan-Emmanuel De Neve of the London School of Economics.

Self-reported life satisfaction lines up with objective measures.

In a sample of one million people across the U.S., subjective life-satisfaction scores closely matched objective estimates of quality of life. So found Wu and Oswald in a paper dated January 2010, “Objective Confirmation of Subjective Measures of Human Well-being: Evidence from the USA.” If self-reported well-being numbers provide accurate information, the data then “offer important intellectual opportunities to research scientists and practical ones to policymakers,” Wu and Oswald write.

If your curiosity is piqued, Hamilton faculty members Stephen Wu, Gary Wyckoff and Richard Werner recommend these writings and a documentary about happiness and well-being.

Measuring HappinessEvidence Based Pursuit of Happiness: What should we know, do we know and can we get to know? Visit Ruut Veenhoven’s website and click on “Publications” then “Main Publications.” (Veenhoven was a speaker at the recent well-being conference at Hamilton.)

Happiness: A Very Short Introduction  by Daniel M. Haybron, Oxford University Press

Happiness: Classic and Contemporary Readings in Philosophy edited by Steven M. Cahn and Christine Vitrano, Oxford University Press, in particular “The Sceptic” by David Hume

The Nature and Value of Happiness by Christine Vitrano, Westview Press

The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-Being by Carol Graham, the Brookings Institution Press (also a speaker at the Hamilton conference)

This Emotional Life a PBS series, with Daniel Gilbert

Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, Vintage Press

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux Press

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