Manel Baucells and Rakesh Sarin have been conducting ground-breaking research on happiness for more than a decade, and in this book they distill their provocative findings into a lively, accessible guide for a wide audience of readers. Integrating their own research with the latest thinking in the behavioral and social sciences--including management science, psychology, and economics--they offer a new approach to the puzzle of happiness. Woven throughout with wisdom from the world's religions and literatures, Engineering Happiness has something to offer everyone--regardless of background, profession, or aspiration--who wants to better understand, control, and attain a more joyful life.
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University of California Press
February 11, 2012
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Excerpt from Engineering Happiness by Manel Baucells
When you can measure what you are speaking of and express it in numbers, you know that on which you are discoursing. But when you cannot measure it and express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a very meagre and unsatisfactory kind.
-Lord Kelvin, English physicist and mathematician
As with matter and energy, our understanding of happiness increases with the discovery of more and more precise measurement instruments. The great milestones of science, such as deciphering the motion of heavenly bodies, all began with the measurement of the object being studied. Without measurement, it is not possible to advance our understanding of the complex dynamics of the happiness seismogram.
There are at least seven ways to measure happiness. Each one helps to create a picture of what makes people happy. Let's see how these seven measurement devices work and the main findings each provides.
The primary strategy for measuring happiness is very simple but has proven to be very useful. It is as easy as asking people twice a year the simple question: All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days? Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?
It may seem too simplistic an approach, and it is. It gives only an imprecise estimate of the average height of the happiness seismogram. The usual finding is that people are generally happy. We surveyed 103 people from Spain. In one of our questions, we asked them to rate their happiness on a 1 (low) to 10 (high) scale, and found that two-thirds gave an answer of 7 or higher.
Many researchers have developed more sophisticated self-report studies, attempting to take a more valid measurement of happiness. Ed Diener of the University of Illinois has conducted many such studies. He uses the following multiple-item questionnaire:
Indicate on a 1-7 scale [1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree] your agreement with each statement:
a. In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
b. The conditions of my life are excellent.
c. I am satisfied with my life.
d. So far I have gotten the important thing I want in life.
e. If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.
The average of the five scores is a more precise estimate of happiness than the one-question version provides. Diener and colleagues have taken pains to show that these self-reported measures of well-being correlate reasonably well with other measurements of well-being, such as bodily measurements (levels of stress), evaluation of our happiness by friends and relatives, smiling, and experience sampling. Of course, self-reports can be biased in many ways. For instance, the emotion of the moment can have a disproportionate influence on the answer. If your partner is away on a long business trip, the momentary loneliness might lead you to answer that you are not that happy, even though you actually are. But, even taking the imprecision and potential for bias into account, the existing research suggests that, for many purposes, self-reported well-being is a useful indicator of individual happiness.
The usefulness of self-reports comes mostly from the vast quantity of data that have been collected using this method. Because collecting self-reports is cheap and easy, there is an ever-growing record of measurements taken in different countries, at different times, and from subjects experiencing all sorts of circumstances. These results comprise the content of the World Database of Happiness and the World Values Survey.
Studies based on these databases suggest that, across different countries, happiness is high among people with lots of friends, the young and the old, married and cohabiting people, the healthy, and the self-employed. Income has a moderate effect, although, as we will soon see, it is relative income that matters the most. Through this kind of approach, scientists have found that American millionaires living in huge, luxurious houses are barely happier than Masai warriors in Kenya who live in huts. Other research has attempted to put a price tag on overcoming adversity, suggesting that it takes millions of dollars to make up for the emotional turmoil of a relationship breakup or a job loss.
Another interesting finding is the relationship between happiness and age. When are we the happiest in our lives? The economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald tried to answer this question, examining data on well over a half million people from about seventy-two countries, both developed and undeveloped. They found that happiness follows a U-shaped curve over our lifetimes, or, for the more optimistic among us, a smile-shaped curve. In either case, happiness appears to dip to its lowest level in middle age.
They suggest that, on average, the low point of happiness occurs around age forty-four. The exact age varies from nation to nation and between genders, but it is always somewhere in middle age. After reaching middle age, happiness begins increasing, and by the time you reach an average of fifty years old, you can expect to be on the bright side of the curve again.
Although this U-shaped trend in happiness is certainly fascinating, it doesn't tell us anything about the causes of our happiness or why it should dip steadily until midlife before rising again.
One possibility is that individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses, and are happier in the second half of their lives after accepting their limitations and giving up on early aspirations that cannot be met. It could also be that cheerful people systematically live longer than unhappy people, although that wouldn't account for the decline in happiness leading to middle age.
What about the effect of education? If we compare a person who has not completed high school with a college graduate, the more educated person will be on average 0.3 standard deviations higher in the happiness bell curve. If happiness were measured as in the SAT test score, with the average at 600 points, then the less educated would have a 585 and the more educated a 615. In our knowledge-based society, education has a moderate but positive effect on happiness.