Today I decided to talk about something that interests me quite a lot, and that’s happiness. It’s a really interesting emotion to explore and evaluate, so please indulge me for today while I have a bit of a delve into whether or not we can measure it!
When it comes to 2 millions years, we all consider that an incredibly long time, but in fact, when it comes to Evolution, 2 million years really is no time at all. In 2 million years, the human brain has nearly tripled in size, from the 1 ¼lb brain of our ancestors, Homo Habilis, to the nearly 3lb brain that we all posses today.
With this growth of our brains, the structure of our brains altered too, leading to the development of what is now referred to as the ‘prefrontal cortex’. The ‘prefrontal cortex’ is the area of the brain that determines decision making and holds our ability to essentially, ‘experience things, without experiencing them’. As Dan Gilbert explains in his talk with TED, “The Surprising Science Of Happiness”, an example of this function can be explained through why Ben and Jerry’s don’t have liver-and-onion ice cream. “It’s not because they whipped some up, tried it and went, ‘Yuck.’ It’s because, without leaving your armchair, you can simulate that flavour and say ‘yuck’ before you make it.” The prefrontal cortex goes through most major changes during the ‘teen’ and pubescent years, which heavily contributes towards why teenagers tend to make impulsive and irrational decisions.
Naturally, with this development in the brain, we also developed problems with it. As we have grown and developed, we’ve discovered something known as ‘Impact bias’. This is the tendency for this ‘experience’ simulator, to work badly. Over time, we have internalised the idea that many situations that contain 2 differing outcomes, have a typically ‘good’ outcome, and a typically ‘bad’ or ‘undesirable’ outcome. From covert field studies, to overt lab studies, we have found that examples such as winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, passing or not passing a test, etc, have far less impact, less intensity, and a much shorter duration than we expect them to have on our happiness and lives. A further example of this is when people were questioned whether or not they’d be happier with winning the lottery, or becoming a paraplegic.
Naturally of course, all people that were asked, answered that they’d rather win the lottery. This is because we naturally assume that we’d be far happier with that outcome. But the truth is, that a year after experiencing one of these life changing events, either winning the lottery, or becoming a paraplegic, both groups of people rated their levels of happiness as exactly the same. This is the ‘impact bias’ in full swing.
A recent study carried out by Kubler-Ross led to the ‘Kubler-Ross Change Curve’. This chart demonstrates how major life traumas effect people, and it suggests that if the event occurred more than 3 months ago, with a few exceptions, it had no impact on an individuals day-to-day happiness.
So how are we going through such life changing events, but merely 3 months later, almost completely unaffected by it? We are able to do so, because happiness can be synthesized. Sir Thomas Brown wrote in 1642, “I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity. I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me.” Human beings have something that we refer to as a ‘psychological immune system’, a system of cognitive processes, largely non-conscious cognitive processes, that help us change our views of the world, so that we can feel better about the world in which we find ourselves; and, like Sir Thomas, we all have this machine.
Before getting into this machine, and how we synthesise happiness, we must first understand the difference between ‘synthetic’ and ‘natural’ happiness. Natural happiness is what we feel when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted. However, in our society, we seem to have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind.
We synthesise happiness, yet we still believe happiness is a thing to be found, or a destination to be ‘reached’. Examples of people showing signs of ‘synthesising’ happiness typically occur when people seem to be ‘stuck’ or ‘trapped’ in situations. An example of this could be a woman that embarks on a date with a man who hasn’t shaved, and picks his nose, is unlikely to see the man again, but take the exact same situation, but the couple are married, and the woman deems the man ‘loveable’ and focusses on his better aspects and traits. This is because the woman is synthesising happiness by making the best of her situation and options.
A further example of a person synthesising happiness is that of Moreese Bickham. Bickham was jailed for 37 years in a Louisiana State Penitentiary for a crime he didn’t commit. But was released for good behaviour halfway through his sentence. However, after his release, Bickham was quoted as saying, “I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.” This is a prime example of synthesising happiness. Bickham has looked back on his experiences, and actively chosen to take the good from it. Ultimately using the word ‘glorious’, which is commonly a word we reserve for something greater than ourselves, such as a religious experience.
So how does all of this relate to happiness and whether or not it can be measured? As Dr Dan Siegel was quoted, “Well-being, of course, is a very subjective and individual experience.” Some argue that happiness cannot possibly be measured, at least not objectively because none of the obvious behaviours can be linked to happiness in a reliable manner. Even an outgoing and friendly appearance, which is so frequently observed among happy people, can be put on as a mask by those who are unhappy. Furthermore, as Michael Blastland said, “Your well-being may not be improved by the same things as mine, the fact that you like to get stoned isn’t going to see cannabis in Tesco.” Objectivity is not being influenced by personal feelings or opinions in representing facts; but that’s exactly what happiness is, and how it is effected.
Ultimately, it can be argued that happiness can indeed be measured, because it’s already happening, right now. Since 2010, The ONS have, as a result of governmental request, been including happiness and well-being questions in their surveys, meaning that we have self-assessed data from the past 5 years detailing our happiness and well-being levels. In the year 2014/5, we as a nation rated our ‘Life Satisfaction’ as 28.8%, up 2% from the year 2013/4. Since we have this data, therefore, surely it must be possible to measure happiness, right?
You might ask yourself, “Why does it even matter? Happiness is surely an individual and unique experience to everyone.” And well, you’d be right. As soon as the reasoning behind why the government wanted The ONS to collect information on our ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ levels was investigated, their motives are obviously deeper than just wanting a happier nation. Our government, naturally, want to improve our country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) which is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period. And it was believed that by monitoring and attempting to improve our GNH (Gross National Happiness), our GDP would increase as a consequence of that.
A further reason as to why we need to be measuring happiness is to ensure we understand ourselves on a deeper level. An example of this could be that happy people are simply more likely to want to get married, and therefore we have the cause and effect the wrong way around. Whereas we falsely attribute happiness to people that are married.
Ultimately, we can all agree that yes, happiness can be measured. This is because I can ask any one of you, on a daily basis, to rate your happiness, and you’d be quite capable of doing so. However, we are only able to rate and measure our own happiness, because we exclusively have access to our, and only our own, unique data, and we can draw conclusions from that. But because we don’t have many control variables, we can’t necessarily compare our data, so the conclusions can only exist as unique and independent data.
This post really does run the risk of being a tldr, so if you made it this far, I’d like to really thank you for taking the time to read this post in its entirety, it means a great deal to me, and this is a topic that I really enjoy writing about.
I thought it’d be fun to cover a much more in-depth and deeper topic, because I very rarely delve into topics that deeply interest me, I feel like I’d stagnated into just pushing out content about generic and predictable things, and doing different things like this is something I’d like to start doing more.
Do you believe that happiness can be measured and compared? Let me know in the comments!