It sounds like a dumb question.
We all want to be happy. And we all know when we aren’t feeling so happy. The pursuit of happiness is even an inalienable right set down in Declaration of Independence. But few of us really stop to examine exactly what it is that we’re chasing.
If you do an online search for the word “happy”, you’ll be served up a ton of pictures of smiley faces, brightly-colored balloons, and models jumping for joy on sunny beaches. (And a goofy, smiling dog. See above.) That’s no help.
Understanding happiness properly is important to all of us. We’re facing historically high levels of mental health problems – so the more we can spread the word about the science of wellbeing, the greater the chances that we can give people the tools to thrive and enjoy happier lives. And that starts with agreeing what “happy” means.
As a scientist, the best definition I’ve seen comes from Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky (author of The How of Happiness and The Myths of Happiness). She argues that happiness is divided into two parts. One is the affective, or emotional part - it’s the answer to the question: "How happy are you in your life?" The second part is the cognitive, or reflective part - it’s the answer to the question: "How you happy are you with your life?"
A happy life isn’t one where you laugh with co-workers, but hate your stressful, unsatisfying job. Nor is it acing your Ivy League classes, and then shutting the door of your dorm room at night and feeling so lonely that you burst into tears.
But how can scientists like me measure these two important, but independent, components of wellbeing?
“I wish there was something like a happiness thermometer, but there isn't,” says Sonja. “So the gold standard for measuring happiness is to ask the person if they're happy.”
That’s right. We don’t have to run blood tests or hook people up to heart rate monitors or even spend hours talking and noting down all the positive and negative things they say about their lives. We can just ask people to fill out a simple wellbeing questionnaire.
For the emotional part of happiness, scientists often ask people to think back over the past month and the kinds of feelings they’ve experienced. The answers are given as numbers on a scale of five (“lots of feelings like that”) through to one (“no feelings like that at all”). You can try this on yourself right now.
In the last month how often did you experience:
Take all your scores for the positive emotions (joy, contentment, etc) and add them together. Do the same for the negative feelings. You’ll have two scores between 6 and 30, which can give you a sense of how happy you are in your life.
The cognitive questionnaire - one that measures what’s called life satisfaction - is similar. It’s scored from one to seven: one being “I don’t agree at all”, and seven being “I strongly agree”.
So answer the following statements:
In most ways, my life is close to ideal.
The conditions of my life are excellent.
I am satisfied with my life.
So far, I have gotten the important things I want in life.
If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.
Add all those scores together. People who are least happy with their lives won’t score more than nine. A few people will report high marks, but most Americans are only reasonably happy on this life satisfaction scale – leaving plenty of room to improve their happiness.
These quizzes may seem a bit crude – but research has shown that they do return valid results. When scientists compare these scores to more elaborate studies – like pinging people’s cell phones at random times to ask how they’re feeling – the results come back pretty much the same.
So now that you’ve considered what happiness actually is… what are you going to do to up those scores?
When I first started teaching my Psych 157 class at Yale, I hypothesized that telling my students about all the latest science of wellbeing would help them become less stressed and miserable. But as a scientist, I wanted to see the data.
I had planned to make my Yale students complete the questionnaires you just read about… but in the stress of running the biggest class ever at Yale, I wound up forgetting to collect the scores. Doh!
But I was given a second shot when Yale and Coursera put the class online. Over 3.5 million people enrolled in The Science of Well-Being – and this time I did have people fill out a detailed wellbeing survey.
I used a questionnaire based on Dr Marty Seligman’s PERMA scale, which looks at five different elements of wellbeing: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. It’s cool and you can try it here: PERMA Profiler.
People taking my online happiness course filled out the questionnaire before the class started and again afterwards.
When my colleagues and I crunched the numbers, it was really exciting. The data showed that my students experienced a significant improvement in their happiness levels (more than a control group of people who took a non-happiness psych course).
Now, these results don’t mean that signing up for a class like mine (or subscribing to this newsletter) will solve all your wellbeing issues, but the findings show that people on average tend to show improvements in their happiness when they learn the right strategies for change.
So I hope you’ll join me again for my next Science of Wellbeing bulletin, and see if together we can increase those happiness scores.
Until next week, stay safe and stay happy,