Understanding The Messy, Unreliable Science Of Happiness

Published March 21, 2016
Updated January 31, 2018
Published March 21, 2016
Updated January 31, 2018

How Do We Measure Happiness?

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Most studies conducted to measure happiness have relied heavily on self-reporting, meaning that the study’s subjects identify and discuss what makes them happy on their own. In general, these studies find that at an individual level, a person’s wellbeing tends to be influenced by money, relationships, and the ways in which the person chooses to spend their time.

The big challenge for scientists attempting to quantify happiness comes when researchers attempt to take these self-reported states, and make sense of them as individual psychological or biological traits.

Standing in opposition to the individualized approach, some researchers claim that the pursuit of happiness is universal: that, as psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud posited, we, as human beings, are always striving to be happy, or at the very least, trying to escape pain and unhappiness.

In this view, happiness is two things simultaneously: the presence of happiness-inducing stimuli and the absence of unhappiness-making stimuli. (Yet another view states that happiness in and of itself is simply the absence of pain and displeasure.)

The upshot of all this back and forth? In terms of quantification, happiness can be “measured” via the ratio of things that make you happy, versus the things that make you unhappy. Sounds simple enough – but how do we apply this practically to our lives?

The Science Of Happiness: Can We Make Ourselves Happier?

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Scientists like David Lykken propose that each person has his or her own set point for happiness, and that regardless of what happens to us, we’ll all eventually level off again at our “natural” level of contentment. “It may be that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller,” Lykken said.

However, what is “natural” may change over time, which complicates Lykken’s theory. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people ages 20 to 24 feel sad an average of 3.4 days a month, as opposed to just 2.3 days for people ages 65 to 74. This might suggest that as we age, we’re able to develop better coping skills for life’s ups and downs.

When it comes to making ourselves happy throughout our lives, though, the passage of time also creates a challenge of its own, called “hedonic adaptation”. This idea suggests that over time, we just expect that certain things will bring us happiness — so much so that extended exposure to these things results in them no longer bringing us pleasure.

As a case in point, some studies have shown that even altruism can lose its luster if done too often: if we’re doing nice things for others constantly, the value of the reward — happiness — starts to go stale, and we no longer get the same rush from our do-gooding.

All in all, the sciences have a hard time explaining just what happiness is, where it comes from, and how it can be measured. In being a uniquely human experience and creation, happiness eludes the rationalities of purely scientific analysis as surely as it eludes almost everyone else who attempts to pin it down. But for a species that’s never been good at knowing when it’s had enough of a good thing, perhaps that’s as it should be.

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England, currently writing a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Cosmopolitan, Medium, Seventeen, Romper, Bustle, and Quartz.