Measuring happiness

Most individuals consider themselves to be happy and content with their lives and, although their source of happiness undoubtedly varies.

Most people know when they feel happy and when they do not. However, happiness is not a static state and even the happiest people report negative emotions from time to time. It is also very subjective, which causes problems for researchers trying to measure happiness scientifically. It cannot be measured objectively, for example by observing behaviour patterns during controlled laboratory experiments. Many researchers therefore believe that the most effective way to measure happiness is simply to ask people about it and they do this by relying on various self-report questionnaires in which respondents make judgements about their life as a whole, as well as making judgements on more specific aspects of their life, such as marriage and work satisfaction, and the frequency in which they experience positive or negative moods and emotions. The key feature to recognise is that individuals themselves are evaluating their own life and reporting how happy or satisfied they feel about it.  

One of the most widely used measurements is ?The Satisfaction with Life Scale?, which was designed by Dr Ed Diener and consists of only five items that require respondents to rate their life satisfaction on a scale of 1-7.  Extensive research has been carried out throughout the globe and it has been found that the scale correlates well with alternative measures of happiness, such as expression of positive emotion, low incidence of depression, and impressions from family and friends.  Diener therefore argues that it is a valid and reliable tool for assessing people?s overall satisfaction with life. You can view and complete the Diener?s scale in the questionnaire section. (You can review the questionnaire in tips and techniques in this happiness section.)

Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, from the University of California Riverside, argues for a more subjective assessment of whether one is a happy or an unhappy person rather than making a judgement on one?s overall quality of life. Lyubomirsky and Lepper (1999) devised the ?Subjective Happiness Scale?, which is a 4-item measurement of global subjective happiness. Two items require respondents to characterise how happy they consider themselves to be using absolute ratings and ratings relative to peers. The other two items provide brief descriptions of happy and unhappy individuals and ask respondents the extent to which each characterisation describes them. All items are measured on a scale of 1-7 and higher scores essentially reflect higher levels of subjective happiness. You can view  and complete the scale in the questionnaire section. (You can review the questionnaire in tips and techniques in this happiness section.)

Other researchers have developed ways to measure more transient moods that occur as a result of everyday life experiences. Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed an experimental method involving beepers that alert participants at various intervals throughout the day.  Upon hearing the signal, they are required to complete a set of questionnaires containing open-ended questions about what they were doing at that moment; multiple-choice items regarding whom they were with; and a series of close-ended scales addressing a wide range of feelings and conditions associated with that moment. However, it is costly, time consuming, and can be intrusive for the individuals taking part in the experiment. Nevertheless, this method provides an excellent source for measuring emotions, satisfaction and levels of engagement at specific times of the day and during specific activities.  

Professor Daniel Kahneman also believes that research should concentrate on people?s experiences instead of focusing entirely on reflections about how happy or satisfied people consider their life to be. He argues that how people actually spend their time cannot be ignored when measuring and evaluating well-being and that specific data on everyday experiences are more important and more meaningful than sweeping judgements of overall well-being and satisfaction with life. Kahneman and his colleagues at Princeton University have devised the ?day-reconstruction method? for evaluating happiness, a tool that requires participants to think of the previous day like episodes in a film and then to complete a lengthy diary and questionnaire detailing everything they did during that day, including whom they were with and how they felt during each episode (e.g. happy, depressed, warm/friendly, worried, impatient, tired, enjoying oneself etc.). They suggest that, by breaking down the day and looking at levels of enjoyment or misery during individual activities, people can mould their overall happiness by increasing or decreasing a particular task or pastime and this may be the most effective way to improve one?s quality of life. Furthermore, they argue that this is particularly crucial when considering national levels of happiness and satisfaction, as being able to determine positive day-to-day experiences could influence changes in policy and social trends designed to improve quality of life. You can read more on this methodology by going to

However, Seligman believes that happiness is more internal and that our memories are more important than the sum total of our experiences. He argues that, by measuring momentary experiences, researchers are placing too much emphasis on transient pleasures and displeasures. His research has identified that the depth of involvement with one?s family, work, romance and leisure activities, and the use of personal character strengths, are much more important for achieving happiness than experiencing pleasure.  Peterson and Seligman?s (2004) classification of positive personality traits provides professionals with an accurate guide to recognising and assessing the positive human virtues that individual?s can build on, rather than focusing on changing their negative characteristics.  This is the first attempt to define the fundamental concepts that are at the root of life satisfaction and it aims to pave the way for further research and implementation of positive psychology within mainstream psychological practice.  The VIA Signature Strengths Questionnaire consists of 240 items and measures 24 different character strengths, including kindness, gratitude, hope, humour, and authenticity.  It can be completed online and there is also a version for children called the ?VIA Strengths Survey for Children?.  This can also be completed online under the supervision of an adult. You can access the VIA by going to:  
There are various other measures of happiness on the Authentic Happiness website, for example, ?The Authentic Happiness Inventory Questionnaire?, which was recently developed by Chris Peterson, University of Michigan.  This 23-item questionnaire evaluates different aspects of satisfaction with life in general, a range of feelings about oneself, enjoyment of day-to-day experiences, and levels of optimism for the future.  Another scale is the ?Positive Affectivity and Negative Affectivity Scale? (PANAS), which was developed by David Watson and Lee Anna Clark, University of Iowa, and Auke Tellegen, University of Minnesota, and assesses positive emotions (e.g. excited, enthusiastic, attentive, active) and negative emotions (e.g. irritable, scared, nervous, hostile). It has been used in many studies investigating the correlates of positive affect and it has been suggested that many of the positive items on the questionnaire have a positive relationship with happiness.  

All tests mentioned above have undergone extensive empirical testing to validate their reliability and are considered to be effective methods for measuring happiness and life satisfaction.

Copyright: Centre for Confidence and Well-Being