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Face Facts: The sad truth about measuring happiness

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Researchers including Krannert's Tim Bond have found that it is nearly impossible to draw definitive conclusions from happiness surveys

We are fascinated by happiness, that elusive life goal. Why are some people — and entire countries — happier than others? Are married people happier than the unmarried? Are parents happier than those who have no children?


The results of happiness surveys are more than a favorite internet trending topic; they could have a profound effect on public policy, if more countries follow the United Kingdom’s lead. The UK tried replacing gross domestic product (GDP) with a happiness scale, a premature endeavor, according to Tim Bond, associate professor of economics at Krannert and a faculty affiliate of the Purdue University Research Center in Economics.


“A lot of people have been pushing governments to create national happiness indices and calibrate policy to them as opposed to GDP,” Bond says. “GDP has a lot of issues. But creating a national happiness scale would be jumping the gun. I think it’s time to slow down on trying to base national policy on these types of measures.”


In “The Sad Truth about Happiness Scales,” published in the Journal of Political Economy, Bond has taken a step back to first ask: How well can happiness be measured? Can the United Nations, for example, definitively say that Finland is the world’s happiest country, as its 2019 World Happiness Report found?


Bond and co-author Kevin Lang of Boston University found that it is nearly impossible to draw definitive conclusions from happiness surveys. And understanding the limitations of measuring happiness is crucial when considering replacing GDP with a happiness index.


One problem with measuring happiness is that the surveys use an ordinal scale. In an ordinal scale, it is not possible to quantify the difference between values, which must be known and exactly equal for an accurate ranking to occur.


The researchers used data, common in happiness literature, from four major sources, including the General Social Survey, the most widely used data to study happiness in the United States. The survey has been collected annually or biennially since 1972 and uses a 3-point scale that asks, “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days — would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” Other data sources publish results from across a large number of nations.


In their research, Bond and Lang found that essentially every ranking prominent in the happiness literature could be reversed by alternative assumptions about how happiness was distributed within the categories “very happy,” “pretty happy” and “not too happy.”

“To accurately measure, we also need to know what’s going on inside these three categories,” Bond says. “People actually experience happiness along a continuum and we do not know what the distribution of that continuum is within each happiness category.


“So, for example, it could be the case that Ghana has more ‘very happy’ individuals than the United States, but the Ghanese are all just on the border between ‘very happy’ and ‘happy’ while Americans are all ‘ecstatically happy’ — thus the average happiness of Americans is actually higher.”




Timothy N. Bond and Kevin Lang, "The Sad Truth about Happiness Scales," Journal of Political Economy 127, no. 4 (August 2019): 1629-1640.