Measure or manage happiness?

In July 2009, Cambridge University Professors Felicia Huppert and Timothy So presented a study with data collected from more than 42,000 Europeans aged 16 or older. And what was the focus of the study? The level of “flourishing” among Europeans by country of origin.

But the researchers were aiming even higher: to establish a methodology to measure the effectiveness of the respective governments in “providing” happiness to their citizens. This trend has been on the rise over the past decade: the idea that the purpose of a government is not to improve the country’s wealth, but rather the happiness of everyone living under their tutelage. As if that happiness depended largely on their actions. However, this is not the topic of discussion in this article.

Can happiness be measured? Is there a variable that can provide us with a correlation? The first obstacle that we run across is actually the definition of happiness itself. Is it mere satisfaction? Good humor? The absence of problems? Feeling good about oneself? Something deeper that is less related to frame of mind?

One very intelligent decision by the authors of the study, which would later be repeated by Martin Seligman (leader of the field known as “positive psychology”) in his book Flourish, is to step back a bit from the idea of happiness and concentrate on an alternative concept, one that is easier to define and study (being much less of a cliché): the idea of flourishing, a kind of sustainable well-being. We can intuitively think of this as the state in which a person is more him or herself, growing, developing and gaining vitality. Here is where the theory of Seligman comes into play: determining variables that, in conjunction, lead to flourishing or the state of sustainable well-being.

Again, if we want to “measure” whether a person is growing on a personal level, if they are flourishing, we can focus (according to Seligman) on five independent variables that would amount to “sources of happiness,” goals that many people seek “for themselves”; in other words, ultimate goals. People don’t just build up their muscles for no reason; they do it because it makes them feel healthy. That feeling would be the ultimate goal in this example. Seligman identifies five types:

  • Moments that involve positive emotions. This is the least structural element, the one most easily attained with money, since it is about doing the things we like to do.
  • Accomplishment. The ability to achieve difficult goals and be successful at what we do.
  • Engagement. This is also about passion for what we do.
  • Meaning and purpose.
  • Relationships that work.

In the following articles, we will elaborate on each of these elements. However, before concluding this brief introduction, we would like to make a series of distinctions. The last four are more structural and stable in nature, less attainable with money and more with individual effort. And with four being an even number, we must once again prioritize the quest for finding balance in our life. Flourishing does not occur with just two of these present; it requires all four elements, and the challenge that entails.

Secondly, the fact that many people pursue these five goals for themselves does not mean they actually are proper goals: Seligman is seeking a more scientific and qualifiable criterion to measure this new concept that he coined, narrowing it down to the five elements that he believes can be used as variables. Hence, it is not a recipe for success (“if you excel in these five areas, you will find happiness”), but rather an attempt to evaluate a person’s growth.

Our goal here is not to defend the need to “measure” our life according to quantifiable parameters. The important things, whether measurable or not, must be managed. Instead, we offer a suggestive framework to delve into a series of questions that we should all be asking ourselves: Am I living a full life? Is it consistent with what my mind and heart truly desire? Am I going forward or backward?