Discovering Happiness By The Numbers

(Editor’s note: This article is from the Fall 2017 issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoyed this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)


Are you happy? Fewer questions are more open-ended or catch us by surprise than this one. How happy should we be and how often? Our usual instinct is to say “yes” — but we probably answer more reluctantly than usual. It’s a moment when it’s almost impossible to not compare the life you live against the one you always hoped for. Moreover, what keeps us from worrying about tomorrow or from taking today for granted?

All too often, happiness seems to be fleeting — or simply exists in small doses, as the comedian Denis Leary once suggested. It’s a topic that fascinates those in the sciences and humanities alike: an objective way to measure one’s happiness. The search led psychologist Ed Diener, a senior scientist at the Gallup Organization, to become a lifelong researcher of subjective well-being — a way to effectively measure one’s happiness with three components.

THE THREE PILLARS OF SUBJECTIVE WELL-BEING

Think of subjective well-being broken into three parts: both positive and negative affect, as well as life satisfaction.

The first two of these are primarily based on your emotions and moods. Remember, the observer always plays a role in what is being observed. Affect is formed by the basic and immediate experiences you have. It’s why a destructive relationship can have damaging results long after it’s over, and why ending a new relationship can be difficult no matter how tough things may be.

The third component, life satisfaction, is an evaluation of your life in its entirety. This is where you may ask if you are currently content with your life as it stands. Are you in relatively good health? Are you close to meeting your goals? What are the most important aspects for your life and have you gotten what you wanted? If given the chance, what would you change about your life? The summation of these questions will determine your life satisfaction.

Bear in mind that life satisfaction is more important than just the state of your emotional well-being throughout a period of time. For example, someone who paints as a hobby could be extremely satisfied with pursuing their passion, even if they only feel moderately happy in how their skills develop overtime, and even if they feel like they haven’t yet created their best work.

Part of this is due to how our memory functions — some things may seem better in retrospect, while we tend to repress what we don’t care to remember. Memories are largely shorthand notes of our own experience. Your mood or recent events can also affect how you score your life satisfaction.

MEASURING SUBJECTIVE WELL-BEING

Rather than stopping momentarily to wonder if you are, in fact, happy, why not make a habit of tracking your own subjective well-being? If you get into the habit of keeping a regular journal of your life’s events — simply writing down what happened to you throughout the day, you may start to see patterns. You can learn how your life satisfaction and emotions fluctuate with the cycles of life, about which events affect you, and how they affect you.

Keep it up for some time and you will see trends emerge. How do you feel at the end of that walk each day? What do you find yourself always putting off — and probably feeling miserable as a result? Once you get the results, you’ll be able to coordinate activities in such a way that you can embellish their positive affect and life satisfaction, and also diminish the negative affect.

You don’t always need to wait for the end of the day to fully reflect either. You can start by tracking both positive and negative affect throughout the day — once every half-hour or hour, so you can get an idea of the impact right away. At the end of the day, you can then determine your life satisfaction.

An easy way, suggested by writer David Sze, is by setting alarms on your phone at 30-minute intervals. All you really need to measure your affect is ask yourself, “Are you feeling positive or negative emotions right now?” and respond with this scale:

  • 0: Not at All
  • 1: A Little
  • 2: Moderately
  • 3: Strongly

Write down a separate number for both your positive affect and negative affect, and next to it, a brief word or sentence describing the time and what you happen to be doing — exercise, housework, etc. Feel free to elaborate on the positive or negative emotions to describe what your mind is on at that moment. Before bed, write down an answer to the question, “How satisfied are you with your life?” Use this scale, the Satisfaction With Life Scale, devised by the psychologists Ed Diener, Robert A. Emmons, Randy J. Larsen and Sharon Griffin:

  • 7: Very Satisfied
  • 6: Moderately Satisfied
  • 5: Slightly Satisfied
  • 4: Neither Satisfied nor Dissatisfied
  • 3: Slightly Dissatisfied
  • 2: Moderately Dissatisfied
  • 1: Very Dissatisfied.

And try writing a sentence or two to describe your day overall. After a few weeks, the trends will likely take on a pattern. You can decide what activities make you the happiest and the ones that make you unhappy and come up with ways to change them. Most importantly, apart from the data you collect, is what is missing from your journal. Ask yourself what keeps you from being fully happy and what you will do to change that.

(Editor’s note: This article is from the Fall 2017 issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoyed this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

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