What’s wrong with happiness measurement ?

by John Q on February 22, 2007

Over at Club Troppo, James Farrell summarises the main elements of the economic research agenda on happiness, and some of the standard objections to it. For those who came in late, and probably didn’t imagine economists ever thought about happiness, the crucial finding is that “Cross country data shows pretty consistently that on average happiness increases with income, but at a certain point diminishing returns set in. In the developed world, people are not on average happier than they were in the 1960s.”

The data that supports this consists of surveys that ask people to rate their happiness on a scale, typically from 1 to 10. Within any given society, happiness tends to rise with all the obvious variables: income, health, family relationships and so on. But between societies, or in Western societies like Australia over time, there’s not much difference even though both income and health (life expectancy, for example) have improved pretty steadily for a long time.

I’ve long argued that these questions can’t really tell us anything, and an example given by Don Arthur gives me the chance to put it better than I’ve done before, I hope.

Suppose you wanted to establish whether children’s height increased with age, but you couldn’t measure height directly.

One way to respond to this problem would be to interview groups of children in different classes at school, and asked them the question Don suggests “On a scale of 1 to 10, how tall are you?”. My guess is that the data would look pretty much like reported data on the relationship between happiness and income.

That is, within the groups, you’d find that kids who were old relative to their classmates tended to be report higher numbers than those who were young relative to their classmates (for the obvious reason that, on average, the older ones would in fact be taller than their classmates).

But, for all groups, I suspect you’d find that the median response was something like 7. Even though average age is higher for higher classes, average reported height would not change (or not change much).

So you’d reach the conclusion that height was a subjective construct depending on relative, rather than absolute, age. If you wanted, you could establish some sort of metaphorical link between being old relative to your classmates and being “looked up to”.

But in reality, height does increase with (absolute) age and the problem is with the scaling of the question. A question of this kind can only give relative answers.



Chris Bertram 02.22.07 at 8:22 am

There seem to be two parts to this John, the thesis that there are diminishing happiness returns to income and the claim that happiness surveys provide empirical support for this thesis.

I think you believe a related thesis, namely that there are diminishing _utility_ returns to income. I’d be interested to hear (a) what you think the relationship is between the utility thesis and the happiness thesis and (b) what you think the empirical support is for the utility version. (And do you believe that the happiness thesis is probably true but that the surveys don’t establish that?)


John Quiggin 02.22.07 at 9:11 am

Chris, you’re right. I think the happiness thesis is pretty accurate in relation to income, but isn’t established by the evidence.

As regards health, I think there’s a further problem which is that even an accurate measure of average happiness at a point in time wouldn’t place any value on longevity, which is clearly problematic.


David Weman 02.22.07 at 9:20 am

I agree w the post, but the tend lines might tell you something interesting.


abb1 02.22.07 at 9:36 am

The reason we can say that “…in reality, height does increase with (absolute) age” is that we can, in fact, measure height in absolute terms. Happiness we can’t measure.

What we should do, then, is bring the average family from the 60s to the present (in a thought experiment), let them hang out here for a few years and then ask them to rate their happiness again.


Daniel 02.22.07 at 10:12 am

Happiness we can’t measure.

true, but we can measure unhappiness through the instruments of mental illness, alcoholism, divorce and suicide. These tend to cross check against the survey data pretty well, don’t they?


bernarda 02.22.07 at 10:24 am

To maybe make you feel happier, see where you rate on the world richness list.



John Quiggin 02.22.07 at 10:54 am

I don’t think any of these are ideal. Mental illness rates are dominated by diagnosis effects. Alcoholism and divorce rates are greatly affected by availability, and it’s not obvious that restricting access to alcohol and divorce enhances happiness.

Suicide rates have generally been declining in Aust and US at least, but I wouldn’t put a lot of weight on that.

And of course, if you really want to go the revealed preference route, there’s migration.


Tim Worstall 02.22.07 at 11:18 am

“And of course, if you really want to go the revealed preference route, there’s migration.”

Which would tend to make the US a rather happier place than Oliver James seems to think it is in Affluenza.


Katherine 02.22.07 at 11:24 am

My thought is that, similar to the comments following Don Arhtur, is that happiness is not necessarily the same as satisfaction, or fulfillment. Sometimes it can be a dangerous way to measure wellbeing. Someone somewhere once said “the greatest threat to freedom is the happy slave”.


conchis 02.22.07 at 11:45 am


My intuition is that the idea of comparative scale renorming (what you seem to be arguing for) would suggest that we should see fairly static distributions of happiness over time (if people are reporting by just fitting themselves into a spot in the distribution of their peers). From what I know, that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least not everywhere. If we were to see fairly static distributions conditional on income, but changing distributions overall, then would that not provide support for the relative income hypothesis? (I should probably work this out more formally, but figured I might as well put it out there as a hunch.)

Similarly, the data doesn’t seem entirely consistent with a view of adaptive scale renorming either: the idea individuals adjust their reporting scale in response to their own past happiness levels. (I don’t think that’s the view you’re advocating, but it has been pushed elsewhere.) This would suggest that we should adapt (proportionately) to everything, not just money. But that too is inconsistent with the survey findings.

The point is that, if you’re willing to make plausible assumptions about the form that any scale renorming takes, that may allow you to identify “real” changes from the data, or at least establish bounds on such changes, or do some sort ofsensitivity analysis.

More generally, it’s possible to think that happiness surveys provide support for diminishing marginal utility, relative income, and/or adaptation without being convinced that prove any of those things. It just depends on what you think is a reasonable prior about the inherent relativity of survey responses. (And indeed, if you believe some of those claims on independent grounds, then you may also think that this provides some evidence for the survey responses being at least partly non-relative.)


conchis 02.22.07 at 11:53 am

Katherine: I agree, but it’s worth noting that many of the surveys in question actually ask things like “how satisfied are you with your life?” rather than “how happy are you?” (though some do that too).

Tim: the problem with migration is that, if you do believe the surveys, they suggest that people aren’t particularly good at realising that their reference group will change when they migrate, and that consequently moving to a richer area may make them less happy. Of course, that relies on buying the surveys, but if you’re applying the same burden of proof, it clear that revealed preference doesn’t prove anything either.


tom hurka 02.22.07 at 12:03 pm

The analogy strikes me as misleading. While people may rely somewhat on comparisons with others when answering ‘How happy are you, on a scale from 1 to 10?’, they do so much less than when answering ‘How tall are you, on a scale from 1 to 10?’. The latter is an inherently comparative question in a way that the second isn’t, since there’s no non-comparative concept of tallness. But people do have some conception of an absolute scale of happiness and some at least rough idea of where they fall on it. Would John suggest that if you asked the happiness question of people in a concentration camp you’d still get a median answer of 7?


Harald Korneliussen 02.22.07 at 12:16 pm

“I think you believe a related thesis, namely that there are diminishing utility returns to income.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it? Presumably, you invest your first hundred dollars in your best 100$ investement (whether your goal is happiness or utility), then next in you second-best 100$ investement etc. Obviously that is a gross simplification, but if people can make sound investements more often than not, it should hold in the long run, no?


Harald Korneliussen 02.22.07 at 12:19 pm

tom hurka, wouldn’t that be a bit like asking the height question in a special summer camp for short kids or something? You wouldn’t get a high average there either. I can’t see that tallness and happiness differ in this regard.


Slocum 02.22.07 at 12:28 pm

Will Wilkinson also has a post on this same topic:



Jamie 02.22.07 at 12:33 pm

There’s another problem you haven’t mentioned, namely, that what people say on surveys about happiness is bound to be heavily influenced by cultural norms. For instance, Americans think we are supposed to be happy, we think we are responsible for our own happiness, and so we think we are reporting failure if we report unhappiness. Whereas French people think that being very happy demonstrates that you are severely out of touch with reality.

(Pardon the cultural stereotypes.)


Pablo Stafforini 02.22.07 at 12:48 pm


1. Your scepticism about self-reports of happiness cannot explain the correlation between reported well-being and per-capita income that holds, across nations, for countries with less than $20,000 income per head. You wouldn’t expect children attending schools in countries with shorter populations to give significantly different answers than children attending schools in countries with taller ones. The analogy you rely on breaks down for these cases.

2. In any case, scepticism about current measurement techniques will likely soon become a dead issue. Research by Richard Davidson and others has identified the main neural substrates of subjective well-being. By directly and continuously scanning brain activity with devices similar to those described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow, we could measure happiness directly, thereby circumventing the difficulties you note. These devices do not yet exist, but they are technically feasible.


Barry 02.22.07 at 1:02 pm

Once I was advising a nurse on a study of people who had suffered traumatic injuries; she mentioned a happiness instrument. I said that there’d probably be a problem with the distribution of scores, that they should clump at the lower end. She stated that this would not be a problem, that happiness scores rebounded to where they were, 6-12 months after the injury/onset of illness.

That made me very skeptical of that instrument.


Ben Hyde 02.22.07 at 1:10 pm

The comparison of height and happiness makes my brain hurt. One is clearly objective and the other is clearly subjective. Can you construct the same analogy using head-aches and happiness? I doubt it.


aaron 02.22.07 at 1:15 pm

Happiness is subjective and based both on experience and emotions that are sometimes coincidental vary in intensity based on componenents of recent and distant past. Unrelated experiences can change the intensity and make up of emotions that different events cause. Frequency, intensity, and variation are important in determining how events affect us emotionally.


aaron 02.22.07 at 1:16 pm

(I think there’s big biological component.)


aaron 02.22.07 at 1:29 pm

Wouldn’t it make more sense to ask the teachers?


harry b 02.22.07 at 1:34 pm

tim (#7). That was my first thought. But…internal migration in the US is massive. Unhappy people who wrongly think it is the city or statem rather than the country, they inhabit that’s to blame…


Tim Worstall 02.22.07 at 1:45 pm

“wrongly think it is the city or statem”

What would be wrong about thinking that there are better places than Flint, Michigan?


JR 02.22.07 at 1:49 pm

Actually, height is less “objective” – or at least, less important in absolute terms – than happiness. Height is important only in relative terms. No one cares how tall they are except as compared to other people. As a male of below average height in the US, this was brought home to me forcefully when I spent some time in Central America, where I was tall. Others had to look up to talk to me; I could see over the heads of a crowd; it was a new experience. The ever-present soldiers and police with their boots and guns were of course menacing – but they were so small, my psychological reaction to them was much weaker than if they had been bigger than me. One night I was walking home through the central square and there was a drunk in the shadows. I realized that I had no fear. I was a head taller than him. In the US, he would have been bigger than me and I would have been afraid. This was an eye-opener. I suspect that taller people experience less fear in their day-to-day lives (especially as children), which makes them calmer, more self-assured, less easily agitated. Height is comparative.

But happiness is not comparative. My happiness need not decrease yours. In fact, I would suggest that any one individual’s happiness is increased by an increase in the happiness of those around him or her.


conchis 02.22.07 at 2:11 pm


What notion of subjective well-being are the devices you’re talking about intended to capture? As has already been noted, “happiness” can be distinguished from “life-satisfaction” and other subjective constructs. My impression was that they were geared at the former, but it’s probably the latter I’m more interested in.


harry b 02.22.07 at 2:17 pm

tim — how could you say that…? You should try Danville, Illinois.


Pablo Stafforini 02.22.07 at 2:57 pm


You are right that these devices would provide us with information about ‘happiness’ rather than ‘life-satisfaction’; they would measure how people have felt across time rather than how people presently think they felt. But I count this as an added benefit to the approach I’m advocating. Retrospective assessments of subjective well-being are subject to a number of biases, introduced by the need to retrieve and aggregate past experience. Direct, continuous measurements of brain activity would overcome these problems as well, in addition to the difficulties John noted.


abb1 02.22.07 at 3:00 pm

#25: I suspect that taller people experience less fear in their day-to-day lives (especially as children), which makes them calmer, more self-assured, less easily agitated.

…and happier?

Happiness certainly is comparative. Being aware of tragedies other people experience makes you put your own troubles in perspective and knowing other people’s achievements can make you unhappy about the lack yours. Social being determines consciousness.

A guy gets his leg amputated. He should be seriously unhappy, right? But what if this is a result of him being the single survivor of a deadly plane crash?


conchis 02.22.07 at 3:37 pm


I’m certainly not dismissing the usefulness of the devices entirely, but I’m also very much a believer in Tukey’s dictum “better an approximate answer to the right question … than the exact answer to the wrong question”. For that reason, I’m inclined to see progress on these sorts of measurement more as a small instance of the sort of progress that will be needed on a lot of fronts, than the massive victory some people seem to think it is.


Andy 02.22.07 at 3:47 pm

The argument for using subjective measures of happiness, as advanced by people like Richard Layard and Danny Blanchflower is that Kahneman and others have done extensive research to validate this sort of scale by demonstrating how peoples’ response to this sort of question correlated with more behavioural measures of happiness like the number of times people laugh or smile and measurement of brain waves. I don’t know the original literature well enough to know whether these claims stand up, but if you want to critique the economics of happiness, I think this is the place you have to start rather than objecting to the subjective measures in themselves.

I think some one like Layard would go on to argue that happiness however you measure it and cardinal utility are the same thing.


C. Anthony 02.22.07 at 4:03 pm

Maybe instead of questioning a happiness instrument that shows that people with physical disabilities (traumatic injuries, amputations, etc.) tend to be roughly as happy as everyone else (after they adapt to their current condition), you should question your own beliefs about disability. Why should we give more weight to the view of a nondisabled person about how disabled people “should” feel than to the experiences of people with disabilities?


harry b 02.22.07 at 4:12 pm

andy’s right about this, and so is pablo about the developments in measuring neural substrates. JQ’s probably asleep — but I think tom hurka’s on the money, and want to see a response!


John Emerson 02.22.07 at 4:22 pm

Not really on-topic, but US suicide statistics are pretty interesting. The lowest rates are in liberal Democratic states, with Massachusetts and New York at the very bottom. The highest rates are all in western states, except for West Virginia.



John Emerson 02.22.07 at 4:27 pm

Th same seems to be true for divorce rates, though less strikingly so:



tom hurka 02.22.07 at 4:34 pm

Good point Pablo, and here’s a better version of mine, minus dubious claims about inherently comparative concepts.

The issue is how people asked the 1-to-10 question fix what the 10 is. (I assume there are non-arbitrary zeroes, having no height or maybe that of a newborn baby in the one case, being at the neutral point between happiness and suffering in the other.)

John assumes that in the height case people will equate the 10 with something like the tallest height in their local community, i.e. class. They can’t equate it with the tallest height humans in general are capable of (7 feet 6?), because then the different classes would have different medians. And he must therefore assume that in the happiness case they’ll likewise equate the 10 with something like the maximum in their local group.

But there’s another possibility. Unlike height, happiness fluctuates. You have moments of intense happiness and other moments of misery. And an initial understanding of the relevantly greatest happiness is a state in which the most intense happiness you’ve experienced is present continuously, i.e. you’re always at that level. That understanding can be extended. You might think you haven’t yet experienced the most happiness you can; your peak is somewhat higher. Or looking at other people’s expressions of ecstasy you may think the general human peak is higher than you’ve yet experienced. But those are just variations.

The basic idea is that you can identify the 10 with something like your own happiest moments carried on continuously. And you can then ask you close your average level of happiness comes to that peak. If it’s close, because you’re most of the time very happy, you’re an 8; if you’re often miserable and only rarely happy, it may be a 2. But at no point are comparisons with others essential. You just ask how close your life, on the whole, comes to the maximum as understood based on your experience.

I doubt that peak moments of happiness have much to do with money. They involve love, or achievement, or rest after strenuous, rewarding work. So the peak can remain constant even though GDP per person changes, as from the 1950s to today. If people now think their average level of happiness is no closer to that peak than in the 1950s, that’s informative.

This isn’t to say there aren’t lots of problems with these subjective assessments, just that there isn’t the specific problem suggested by John’s analogy. A key reason, I’m suggesting, is that levels of happiness vary, so we can identify the relevant maximum as what our lives would be like if they were always at that maximum. But heights don’t vary, or at least John’s assuming that the way they do isn’t used in assessing height in his classroom analogy.

So as I’ve said, the analogy is unpersuasive. But arguments just by analogy are always tricky — though tempting — things.


conchis 02.22.07 at 4:40 pm

On andy’s point, it’s worth noting that the correlation with behavioural and other “objective” measures will only address John’s concern if the correlations persist over time (and even then, any attenuation over time might suggest some sort of movement in the reporting scale). My assumption was that most (maybe all) of this evidence was cross-sectional, but I’d be happy to be told I’m wrong on this.


JR 02.22.07 at 5:10 pm

#34 – using state data is tricky. The major correlation seems to be rural v. urban states. But you would really need much more fine-grained data to draw conclusions.


abb1 02.22.07 at 6:10 pm

You have moments of intense happiness and other moments of misery.

Certainly this must be a different phenomenon from the one you’re asked to rate in these studies. The latter sounds more like general level of being satisfied with your life (which definitely includes your social status, which is similar to your relative height).

You could be sitting in a dentist chair in the middle of the root-canal procedure and totally miserable, but if you’re asked: “how’s the life in general, are you happy?” You’ll probably reply: “yeah, everything’s fine, about 7.5 worth.”


Sebastian holsclaw 02.22.07 at 6:11 pm

I second slocum’s reccommendation of Bounded vs. Unbounded. Essentially it questions how you can compare bounded statistics (happiness on a 1-10 scale) with unbounded statistics (say income) and hope to get useful information out of them over any long period of time.


eudoxis 02.22.07 at 6:25 pm

Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer? A Focusing Illusion

The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory. People with above-average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities. Moreover, the effect of income on life satisfaction seems to be transient. We argue that people exaggerate the contribution of income to happiness because they focus, in part, on conventional achievements when evaluating their life or the lives of others.

Science June 2006: 312(5782)


conchis 02.22.07 at 6:49 pm

eudoxis: the alternative explanation of the Kahneman et al. result is that perhaps satisfaction is just something different from an aggregation of moment to moment good mood.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to the focusing illusion argument. But the Science article doesn’t actually provide much evidence for it.


finnsense 02.22.07 at 7:00 pm

There are few things that annoy me more over this debate than the “personal reports of happiness are meaningless” and “suicide rates are far more meaningful” mantra.

Firstly, it is not hard to see how people could quite accurately state from one to ten how happy they are. Most people in their lives have points of what they would call happiness and others of significant unhappiness. I see no difficulty whatsoever in stating where on the line of happy to unhappy I feel I am.

Secondly, the international happiness statistics tend to show results that for the most part seem to tie in quite well with impressions you get. Danes are frighteningly cheerful most of the time and Russians are irrepressibly miserable. There are also very good reasons for seeing why this is if you look at the commonsense factors that make you yourself happy. Things like health, opportunities, looking forward to the future, happy relationships and so on.

With regard the suicide rates it is perverse to think they show much of anything except a predilection for one culture to deal with depression by killing themselves. The number of people killing themselves is a very small proportion of any country whether it be Italy or Finland. Judging the overall happiness of a country by suicide rates is like judging it by the number of people who consider themselves relentlessly cheerful. Both are outliers.


Yarrow 02.22.07 at 7:25 pm

that happiness scores rebounded to where they were, 6-12 months after the injury/onset of illness. … made me very skeptical of that instrument.

I’ve seen my dearest friend (who has multiple sclerosis) go from being able to walk a block on crutches to being able to move only her head, left arm, and left thumb. I won’t say she’s as happy now as she was then (at some point the effects of disability on happiness presumably start to resemble those of low income), but she’s happier than many folks I know – thanks in part to her own indomitable spirit and in part to TV, the Internet and iTunes.


conchis 02.22.07 at 7:41 pm

“Essentially it questions how you can compare bounded statistics (happiness on a 1-10 scale) with unbounded statistics (say income) and hope to get useful information out of them over any long period of time.”

Because you think either: (a) that happiness actually is bounded; or (b) that, given the distributions of self-reports we see around the place, the bound is sufficiently far off for most people that it doesn’t particularly matter for your empirical conclusions.

(b) seems pretty accurate at the moment. (a) is a little more contentious, but not implausible.


John Quiggin 02.22.07 at 7:52 pm

Tom, your version makes things even worse for the standard uses of this data. If we rate our own happiness relative to our own personal experience, then it’s obvious that happiness can’t change much over time. More broadly, though, you’re reinforcing my point that these 1-10 scales are inherently relative to some unstated comparator, so you can’t use data from them to infer that happiness is relative.

On the brain-scan data, I agree that this might work in principle. But while I haven’t followed the literature closely, I haven’t seen anything that uses such measures to validate international or cross-group comparisons, and obviously they can’t be used to check data from the 1950s and so on.


conchis 02.22.07 at 8:41 pm

“Tom, your version makes things even worse for the standard uses of this data. If we rate our own happiness relative to our own personal experience, then it’s obvious that happiness can’t change much over time.”

(1) Perhaps I’m missing something, but this doesn’t seem obvious to me at all.

(2) Whether it’s worse or better than under your suggested mechanism depends whether the maximum of your own instantaneous happiness is more or less stable than the maximum of others average happiness.
(3) In any event, you could go one step further than Tom and argue that we may actually fix our upper bound at what we imagine life would be like if we were to continuously experience the maximum of our peers’ instantaneous happiness.

“More broadly, though, you’re reinforcing my point that these 1-10 scales are inherently relative to some unstated comparator, so you can’t use data from them to infer that happiness is relative.”

This doesn’t seem to follow either; it all depends on what the unstated comparator is. I don’t think your argument works unless you think that the comparator for the reporting function is the same as the comparator for the underlying well-being function. Clearly, if we fix our upper reporting bounds at our maximum experienced happiness, then we can’t use evidence from surveys to argue that happiness is relative to our maximum experienced happiness. But that isn’t what most people are claiming it’s relative to.


radek 02.22.07 at 10:21 pm

Late to the discussion and the most important points have already been made by conchis, John and others. One thing to note though is that most of these studies done in an international context run into translation problems. And I don’t mean just faulty translations, which I think are somewhat of a problem but something usually the studies try to limit, but also cultural translation.
The word “happy” or “satisfied” may not mean the same thing language to language, culture to culture.

For example, suppose that some Cimmerians decided to conduct a happiness survey, came to America and went around asking people “How merry are you?”, or, worse, “How gay are you?”. You gonna get some serious bias.

For another concrete example, I’ve seen surveys in Polish which translated “How happy are you?” into “How lucky are you?” the words for happiness and luck being pretty close (or even identical) in Slavic languages.

Yes, I know that this is something that the folks who carry out these studies try to address but I’ve never been really convinced that they do so succesfully.


John Quiggin 02.22.07 at 10:56 pm

#47 Maybe I was unclear, conchis. What I meant was that average reported happiness can’t change much from generation to generation (since everyone is assessing it relative to their own experience), not that individual happiness can’t change.


sidereal 02.22.07 at 11:45 pm

This discussion reminds me of my experience with appendicitis last year. At the hospital both before and after the appendectomy I was asked to rate my level of pain on a 1-10 scale. I remember being totally baffled and the nurses getting increasingly impatient as I tried to mull out how to assign a number to that. Is 1 simply no pain? Or is 1 an experience of total pleasure? I finally decided that 10 represented a pain so intense that it would cause major psychological trauma, so I went with about a 5 even though I was in a considerable amount of pain, and probably analyzed myself out of some much appreciated demerol.

There was even a helpful chart hung on the wall that helped normalize the scale versus facial expressions, so 1 was a blue smily face, 5 had a sad green face, and red was a crying, very sad face. Of course, this simply implies that more stoic people experience less pain, which strikes me as dubious and unhelpful.


conchis 02.23.07 at 12:09 am

John, I’m still not sure that gets you what you need unless the bounds of momentary happiness are changing significantly. I’d expect that most real changes over generations would be in how much time we spend in particular states, rather than the absolute level of their extremes.


Walt 02.23.07 at 1:18 am

Sebastian: Comparing bounded and unbounded statistics is a well-understood problem in econometrics.


Seth Baum 02.23.07 at 3:47 am

Hi all. Great discussion here. I won’t add much, except to say that it seems to me that the big opportunities to increase utility are not in wealthy country happiness but in the world’s poorest, in livestock animals, and in basic future well-being (e.g. existential risks). I will, however, make a shameless plug for Felicifia, an online utilitarianism community where all of the above gets discussed. It’s how I found this. Yinz can post your own diaires there if you’d like.


mk 02.23.07 at 6:37 am

But in reality, height does increase with (absolute) age and the problem is with the scaling of the question. A question of this kind can only give relative answers.

Hmm. You mean in principle or just in practice?

In principle, this must be false. Clearly you could give people much more rigorous survey guidelines (e.g. “a ‘7’ means that you experience blah blah at least 20 times a day…”), such that the measurements were accurate and absolute, not relative.

In practice, that’s hard. Surely if you just say “pick a number!” without much explanation, who knows what you’ll get.

You are putting your finger on a problem, but the problem is this:

1) We don’t know how people interpret the survey question.
2) So, we don’t know what their criteria are in answering it.
3) In particular, we don’t know whether they answer using relative or absolute criteria.

You are positing that they answer using relative criteria, which is indeed a problem because it means that people in different groups do not have comparable scores.

The problem is not with the 1 to 10 scale, though. Those are just numerical endpoints, you can of course find a bijection between [1,10] and any other 1-dimensional numerical scale you wanted to use. It may be necessary to map ’10’ to infinity. Oh well, you throw out a value.

Of course, we may someday find out that 1 to 10 is a little silly. That depends on whether we find something we really think is a great thing to measure and call ‘happiness’ (like, the percentage of time your left PFC activity is greater than right, or vice versa, I forget). Chances are if we find some actual thing we want to call the numerical measurement of happiness, the 1-10 scale will not be the most natural scale for it.

The problem with 1 to 10 is not the numbers, or the boundedness of the numbers, but rather the lack of explanation on how to give yourself a number.


abb1 02.23.07 at 9:15 am

At the hospital both before and after the appendectomy I was asked to rate my level of pain on a 1-10 scale. I remember being totally baffled and the nurses getting increasingly impatient as I tried to mull out how to assign a number to that.

Always tell them 9 or 10, or else they’ll assign you a lower priority and fix people who said “10” first. Delaying appendectomy could kill you.


John Quiggin 02.23.07 at 9:23 am

Indeed, mk, but of course if you had the criteria the sensible thing to do would be to ask “how often each day do you experience unimaginable bliss/contentment/quiet desperation/suicidal depression and then compute your own scale. The request for a number from 1 to 10 is an indication that there’s nothing better available.


tom hurka 02.23.07 at 11:11 am

“average reported happiness can’t change much from generation to generation (since everyone is assessing it relative to their own experience)”

Conchis’s replies have been bang-on. The assessments are made relative to peak happiness experiences, e.g. falling in love, which there’s no reason to assume change from generation to generation. (Do orgasms feel different for Americans now than they did in the 1950s?) The assessment then is of how close the rest of a person’s life is to that peak. One might have expected people with bigger houses, faster cars, and more entertainment options to be closer to the peak more of the time. If they say they’re not — if the extra wealth hasn’t improved their non-peak experiences — that’s informative.


jls 02.23.07 at 1:01 pm

If you accept Runcimans concept of Relative Deprivation developed in Britain in the late sixties, basically that as wealth rises people continually raise the bar below which they feel deprived, then I cannot see why you would have a problem with Relative happiness. Yes we have more holidays, free time and material goods but most of this is what we expect. So we don’t rate ourselves as extremely happy. Or overly satisfied.


mk 02.23.07 at 4:33 pm

Indeed, mk, but of course if you had the criteria the sensible thing to do would be to ask “how often each day do you experience unimaginable bliss/contentment/quiet desperation/suicidal depression and then compute your own scale. The request for a number from 1 to 10 is an indication that there’s nothing better available.

A fair point, but there may be other examples of guidelines which are clear guidelines but not really numerical. Like for example, “watch this video. A 5 means you are as happy as this guy. A 7 means you are as happy as this woman. A 9 means you are as happy as this person.” etc.

Of course, people need to interpret that person’s happiness and compare themselves to it, which is arguably still an unclear task. But, also arguably, there is now more comparability among groups, because you have made the points of comparison clearer.

I’m not saying this is particular survey idea is a very good one. Just that one can imagine ways to make the survey less relative even without giving them really numerical instructions (like “how many times a day do you feel XYZ”)


mk 02.23.07 at 5:57 pm

It is also worth mentioning that the 5, 7, 9, here are not really numbers. They’re categories, akin to “very happy” or “moderately happy” or what have you.

In that sense, even if the criteria were clear and non-relative, the “numbers” may obscure more than they reveal. But if you set the survey up correctly, it may still be useful to help determine whether happiness increases with income, etc.

(A methodological problem with the “video” example above is that respondents may have their own personal relative rankings of how happy all the people in the video are! So you might dictate that a “7” means as happy as this guy, but someone might think that the person dictated as a “6” actually looked more happy. You could try to work around this maybe, by having them perform the relative rankings of the 10 people themselves…)


John Quiggin 02.23.07 at 8:15 pm

#57 I don’t buy this at all. First up, I doubt that it’s true that the proportion of people who’ve experienced intensely pleasurable sex has been constant over time. In particular, I think it’s almost certainly higher now than in, say, 1950.

More importantly, I doubt that this is the kind of experience people use to anchor their scale. I suspect if you asked people to nominate directly the times when they’ve been happiest, that things like holidays would figure pretty strongly. Also weddings and honeymoons, I imagine, which opens up some interesting issues for debate.


Sebastian Holsclaw 02.24.07 at 12:22 am

“Sebastian: Comparing bounded and unbounded statistics is a well-understood problem in econometrics.”

Oh thank GOD you cleared that up! Want to clue us in on the understanding?


John Quiggin 02.24.07 at 4:05 am

Indeed, the problem of bounded and unbounded statistics is well-understood and isn’t a serious difficulty in the present context. There’s a huge literature on estimation of relationships involving limited (i.e bounded) and ordered categorical variables, to which I have made some very minor contributions.

For a good introduction, try:

Greene, W. 2003. Econometric Analysis, Prentice Hall: New Jersey


Alex Gregory 02.24.07 at 8:05 am

On revealed preference, won’t this fail to answer the important question? It’s probably fairly well accepted that most people believe that greater income means more happiness, but if what we want to know is if they’re correct on this, then looking at whether or not people actually pursue greater incomes isn’t going to help.


shwe 02.24.07 at 11:25 am

I don’t understand how happiness is the same as utility, as the respective theses regarding these and income seem to diverge in one important respect. Diminishing returns to income suggests that you simply need to have more to reach a given leven of satisfaction/utility. Many of the happiness theorists seem to suggest that having more income decreases happiness past a certain threshold.


calmo 02.28.07 at 7:49 am

Recall Mae West’s famous line people “Are you happy to see me or is that a pickle in your pocket?” and take your cue that this has nothing to do with numbers.
You are happy or you’re not.
Don’t give me this waffling nonsense about 6 out of 10 –that’s a ‘no’. Bone up and confess you are in the doldrums just trying to fashion a response. Now you may think that Mae’s “happiness” is so different from the economist’s, but you, unhappy buzzard, would be wrong.

Is it transient? [only an idiot is happy all the time, yes?] Can your case be made more or less transient? [Can Mae make a difference? can she!]
And we are going to entertain the notion of measuring this?
Not me. And not Mae. What about you, econometrician (stick-in-the-mud)?
This elusive but well worth pursuing Happy person is someone who is motivated, inspired and an inspiration to others. She is both your best citizen and your best worker. So policies that make more people happy, more often for longer periods of time are worth pursuing. We can tell (like Mae) when you’re happy, but measuring it in the aggregate…I don’t think so.

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