My Quest to Quantify Happiness

We are living in a world of the quantified self, trying to measure every aspect of our lives. How many steps did I do today? What was my sleep score? How many calories did I consume today? The sole aim of this data and algorithmic driven pursuit is to achieve the pinnacle of happiness. So, can we measure and track happiness? The World Happiness Report measures and ranks it by country. Finland is the “happiest country in the world”.
What about individuals like you and me?
There are a few tests to measure happiness or subjective well-being. I decided to try one from the University of Pennsylvania. It’s called the Authentic Happiness Inventory score. Mine was 3.08 out of 5.
What does that mean? Am I unhappy? Am I marginally happy? Usually, a sixtieth percentile score is not good. While pondering this dilemma, I came across an article written by Arthur Brooks, a Harvard Professor. He has developed three equations for happiness.

Equation 1 : Subjective Well Being = Genes + Circumstances + Habits
Equation 2: Habits = Faith + Family +Friends + Work
Equation 3 : Satisfaction = What you have / What you want

Could I use these equations to build a happiness score?

Equation 1 : Subjective Well Being = Genes + Circumstances + Habits

Research has shown that genes have a 44% to 52% impact on your well being. This means your genetic profile determines your “baseline” well-being. Life’s ups and downs will change that, but finally, you will revert to your baseline. In short, you cannot control this variable.
What about Circumstances?
The environment affects baseline well-being — how much, is the big debate. Human beings are born with the ability to adapt to the good or the bad. It is a survival instinct. Think of anything new in your life. Now think of how long the joy lasted before the novelty wore off. There is a positive surge in happiness. It comes down to the baseline as time passes. The adage — “time heals all wounds” has its basis in this same survival instinct. A bereavement results in a downward spiral. The passage of time pulls you back up to your baseline.
Although Genetics and Circumstances are out of your control, Habits, and Satisfaction are within your grasp.

Equation 2: Habits= Faith + Friends + Family + Work.

The question that popped up in my mind was — How do I attribute values to these variables? Is it even correct to try and define numerical values? Instead of using numbers, can I use a fuel gauge equivalence? How about a Happiness Gauge?

The second challenge for me was to find a framework or a template to determine the status of my gauge. Corporate life had infused templates into my being. I found a framework in Designing Your Life — The Love-Play-Work-Health dashboard.
This framework helped me build gauges for each of the variables. I also had health as an added parameter.
Faith is having something to believe in. A way of reflecting on the philosophical aspect of life. It has an impact on happiness, the extent is unknown.
Lots of research studies show that relationships have a significant impact on well-being. Being at loggerheads with your mother-in-law is not good for your physical or mental well-being.
Age tends to affect the number and quality of relationships. Older folks (and here I stay away from putting a number) tend to prefer fewer but more meaningful relationships. Younger ones want as many as possible as evidenced by their quest for an increasing number of friends on Facebook.
The last variable in this equation is work. Doing anything productive gives life some meaning. Work may or may not be about the money, though it is well established that money doesn’t buy you happiness. The scores of happiness literature out there tell you that meaningful work makes a person happy. It is very rewarding when you are serving others.

At the end of this equation, my gauges were reflecting the state of my relationships, my faith, and my work. I did not have a number. I could still move my gauges for the better by making small improvements in my habits. E.g. volunteering in a dog shelter to improve my work gauge. I called them “small wins”.

Equation 3 : Satisfaction = What you have/what you want.

The answer to this one is easy. The closer you are to 1, when the numerator=denominator, the more satisfied you are. If you are one of the rare souls that have all you want, you have achieved nirvana. It’s quite easy to determine the numerator. Your assets, your job title, your fame, etc…will form the numerator.
Working on the denominator is tough. Yet focusing on it will bring quick results. The pandemic has forced us to take a hard look at what we want and accept what we have. People are focusing on the needs and dispensing with many of the wants. It should increase satisfaction. But other factors, like job loss or social restrictions, change the equation and lead to dissatisfaction.
It is tougher when you are young — you always want more than what you have. As you age, your wants reduce.

“We need to learn how to want what we have not to have what we want in order to get steady and stable Happiness.” — Dalai Lama.

My satisfaction gauge looked something like this.

Looks like I am not old enough to have fewer wants than what I have. I am on a very slow hedonic treadmill.
I concluded that happiness is not quantifiable and any attempt to do so is a fool’s errand. A better way to look at it is like a car dashboard with many gauges. Looking only at one gauge doesn’t give you the correct picture. You have to look at all of them to understand if you are cruising happily.

Over time, my quest to quantify happiness had changed from getting to a number to showing it on a few gauges. Then a concept called meaningful life stepped in and clouded my Happiness Gauges. More on that in the next post.
Thank you for reading this. I would love to hear your thoughts.
All the templates I used are free to download here.

Downloadable Templates


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