Universal Ethics > Research > Happiness > Measuring

Measuring Happiness

In order to plan for personal happiness, or to spread happiness, it would be very helpful if one could measure happiness. That way, if you are faced with a decision, you could use a bit of creativity to come up with some alternatives, measure the happiness associated with each, and then pick the one with the highest score.

Although that sound like a good method, it has a very big practical problem: it's not easy to measure happiness! It's not a simple measure, like measuring liquid in a beaker. Moreover, when you try to measure it across multiple people, you have an even bigger problem because there are variations in what makes each of them happy.

Nevertheless, there are practical ways of handling the decision making process that work to gradually increase happiness, notwithstanding that it is difficult to measure. In order to explain the practical solution, let's begin with a closer look at the problem...

Happiness in Individuals

See Happiness in Individuals for an explantion of the challenge of measuring the happiness of a person.

Happiness Across a Population

See Happiness across a population for an explanation of the additional challenge of measuring happiness of many people together.

Practical Solutions

From the preceding explanations, you can already see some ways of making choices that improve happiness without actually making any exact measurement. For individuals, instead of trying to measure overall happiness, the person tries small experiments to see how they affect his satisfaction, and he (or she) makes adjustment to his habits over time. For people, or for animals who fall under our control, rights are granted in order to prevent outcomes that are known to produce undesirable results (in the "double-red" or "red" categories).

Although these methods are fairly effective, and notwithstanding the difficulties I have explained, we still find that it would be useful to be able to assign an overall "happiness score" or a "success score" to a limited number of people in a limited period of time. Even though it might only be an approximation, it can be helpful among a group of people for decision making purposes. There are two situations we need to consider:

  1. individuals acting independently but seeking to achieve shared ideals, and
  2. individuals who assign a leader to make rules and plans on their behalf.

Independent Action for Shared Ideals

Let's consider the first case, where people act independently. Because people have very similar motives, even though there are variations they will tend to want the same things. They will seek ways of satisfying their motives that don't have unwanted side-effects. There are multiple ways of satisfying any motive, but societies will develop traditions among them of the generally preferred ways. This gives rise to "ideals".

The "ideals" are preferred conditions that satisfy motivators without unwanted side-effects. They can each be described by a simple statement. Example ideals may include such things as "everyone can live in peace," "all children shall be able to get an education," "no person shall suffer from ill health," "our ecology shall be sustainable forever," etc.

If all the members agree on the ideals, and if they all voluntarily apply effort to achieve them, it might not be necessary for a leader to determine how important one ideal is compared to another. Each person will decide for himself (or herself) how much of his own effort he will apply to bringing particular ideals closer to reality, based on his own value judgement and skills that he can contribute. The group receives the benefit of their combined contribution, to give happiness to themselves and those whom they care about.

So, in this scenario, it is unnecessary to try to determine a "weighted average formula" for calculating happiness across a population. People do not need to agree on the magnitude of "how good is the result overall?" The ideals form the direction of the society, and the magnitude of the change is unimportant. The magnitude overall will be whatever it turns out to be, based on the aggregate effort of all the society members together.

Leader deciding values on behalf of a population

Now let's consider the second situation. In the second situation, people discover that acting independently is not adequate. A typical reason is that they are undertaking complex initiatives that require coordination.

Moreover, the group may wish to prevent "freeloaders" or "cheaters" who would gain the benefits of the group's effort, but who personally volunteer nothing. To prevent that problem, groups will often require a designated contribution from their members. In a nation, that designated contribution is collected via taxation. Typically the required donation is only a fraction of each person's spare capacity, so the person is left with the freedom to volunteer or contribute beyond the minimum. However, because a minimum is enforced, that enables the group to deliver a guaranteed benefit to the members.

In this scenario, we have a leader, or perhaps a team or hierarchy of leaders, who are assigned to plan what to do with the resources that are collected. Let's imagine that a leader of a small community is elected, and he must consider how the community's tax revenue might be spent. Various options exist: rescuing people from misfortune, helping neighboring communities, doing research to help future generations, or various other projects for themselves such as building roads, schools, or hospitals. Each of those give rise to various satisfactions among the population.

It would be very handy if the leader could calculate for any given constellation of initiatives, which collection of them would give the most satisfaction to the people who elected him. It would be for a limited number of people--the electorate--but it would also cover their value judgements of things they care of that are outside of the electorate, such as the ecology, other regions, etc.

To gather this information he could poll the public, to ask them to rate how satisfied they are on various things. That might give a very approximate result, but surveys must be kept simple in order that people will take the time to answer them, so the answers will not likely be adequate for a precise determination of how to allocate the resources.

Another approach would be to use alternate measures, using the method explained in one of the hyperlinked explanations above. So the leader would gather information about the adequacy of the food supply for the population, measures of educational achievement, odds of people being harmed from crime, etc., and these would be rated against standards that are developed based on expections of the electorate. A formula would be needed to calculate an overall result for any potential constellation of benefits. This would be the community's "success formula."

Community Success Formula?

Could such a formula be developed? Probably it could. There have been some attempts. For example, the UN has published an evaluation of which are the "best nations" to live in, based on a formula that aggregates data from each nation.

One might object to this method on the basis that the formula would inevitably have built-in value judgements, because it would likely include a weighted average of various measures. Can we really say that there is such a thing as the "welfare of a nation" if it can't be measure objectively?

In answer to that I will provide you with an analogy. Is there a difference between a stupid person and an intelligent one?

You could give each of them an intelligence test in hope of providing an objective assessment. But if you look under the covers of an IQ test, you will see that it is typically a weighted average of questions that test various mental skills. The relative importance of the skills is the value judgement applied by the author who created the test. Different tests created by different authors applied to the same group of people will produce somewhat different results. The intelligence rankings of the people (most intelligent, next most intelligent, etc.) will not be consistent across all the tests.

Nevertheless, the tests will all be designed to rate people on factors commonly understood to be associated with intelligence. The extremely intelligent people will not be confused with the extremely stupid people on any of the test results.

So, there is a difference between intelligence and stupidity, even though it might not be measured exactly. Likewise there is a difference between the happiness vs misery of the people in a nation.

A politician might find it very useful to develop a "society success formula" based on the values of the electorate, insofar as he can determine it. The more accurately he can figure this out, and the more effectively he can fulfil the most important desires of the electorate via his good planning and effective decisions, the more likely they are to re-elect him.

The end result could be pretty much the same as the "Independent Action for Shared Ideals" method, but with better coordination.

This assumes, of course, that the people themselves are pursing happiness and seeking to spread happiness, and that they only vary on the emphasis they place on different intiatives to do those things. If not, the formula may be measuring something, but not measuring what we were hoping to measure!

A perverse success formula

At this point, one very important caution must be presented. The values of the electorate are not necessarily well thought-out among the population. Worse, the members of society might support leaders who do the opposite of "spreading happiness." We must remember that Adolph Hitler got enough people to vote for him to get himself elected. Many of them regretted it later, and perhaps they were fooled at first by his promises. But probably many of them knew that he intended to spread misery instead of happiness onto people, including many people within his nation and without that he considered to be inferior.

If Hitler tried to develop a "success formula" what would it be? It certainly woulnd't be happiness for all the world, nor even for Germans! His view of the world was a "dog eat dog" philosophy of each nation or race struggling to claw to the top of the pile to dominate the others. He didn't promise happiness even to his own people, but rather he called upon them to struggle and suffer in order to fulfil their destiny.

Apparently in the depression of the 1930s, a defeated and desperate people would accept such an argument, but it was definitely not one that generated happiness, as we have seen from the historic results.

If we are relying on the values of a population in order to define a "success formula" for spreading happiness, we must hope first and foremost that the society is filled with people who are really focused on making their world into place where happiness is supported. And we would further hope that they take a "big picture" view of how their choices will affect other nations, other animals, and the people of the future.

If we wish to develop a success formula based on measuring happiness across a population, it actually has to have criteria that measure happiness, not something else.

Difference in values

Let's assume that the author of the "community success formula" is indeed focused on measuring aggregate happiness of a community by alternate measures that are assocated with satisfiers. However, he still has a challenge to determine what weights ("values") should be applied to each component of the overall formula. Even when the people in the society agree on the ideals, there may be differences in how much emphasis they place on each of them.

Is there a way to determine if one set of values is better than another?

To answer this, let's consider two nations who each agree on the same ideals, seeking to have happiness spread as far as possible over space and time. Each nation will decide their own "success formula" that includes value judgements of how much of their effort should be spent on a variety of desirable things, including relaxation, recreation, discovery, preserving the ecology, and helping others among themselves and outside of their own nation

For this example, nation "A" puts most of their emphasis on the relaxation and recreation. Their values are primarily those that minimize the amount of effort that they put into anything resembling work, including discovery.

Meanwhile, nation "B" also values relaxation and recreation, but puts strong weight on the other goals mentioned above.

Suppose we let each nation implement those values, and we watch the results over a period of three or four generations. What difference might we expect at the end of that time?

Because of how they applied their efforts, you would expect nation "B" to be more technologically advanced, and their people would be in better health because of their health science. Because of their technology, the members of nation "B" could relax and have machines do much of the work for them, but regardless they don't spend most of their time relaxing. That's because their values are to discover, help others, etc., so they continue to apply time to those things. It is those values that made them into what they are, and that's what will also bring them more improvements in the 4th, 5th, and 6th generation. We might also expect that nation "B" will have friendly relations with other nations, who would be glad to help nation "A" if the need arose. If nation "B" ever had a need to defend itself, it would have lots of allies.

Nation "A" by contrast would seem backward in its technology. The people of nation "A" never invested in the same level of progress, because their values mostly favored relaxing.

How would the people of nation "A" feel about this? Some might wish that they were in nation "B", because they could relax even better there, with all the advanced robots to do the work for them. However, if relaxation is a core value for them, they would also realize that they wouldn't fit into nation "B" very well, because they would be called upon to put more effort into help others, discovering things, etc., than they really want.

Within any nation, there can be some variation among people. There may be some in nation "A" who wished that their ancestors had planned things differently. Maybe some of those people would adopt the ways of nation "B", or emigrate to nation "B."

Others of nation "A" however, might prefer to stay and continue their leisurely rate of progress, and that's not necessarily bad. Remember that our goal here was for each person to have happiness, so if that is really what makes those people happy, then it's reasonable for them to continue that way. Nation "A" may not be as technologically advanced or as powerful, but they can have friendly relations between their nation and nation "B". They are all seeking happiness, and nobody is seeking to harm any other, so nation "A" is quite safe even though nation "B" has more power.

From this we can conclude that the people of nations A and B can each be happy, if their values truly differ as I had described. But people need to consider their values carefully. If a person of society "A" is disappointed that he and his society have fallen behind compared to society "B", then perhaps he might reconsider his own values!

So to conclude, there may be differences in values among people about how much they emphasize different kinds of desirable outcomes that they can produce, but most importantly they need to agree on ideals to move toward a mutually satisfactory world.


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