What’s the Best Way to Measure Happiness?

How data distracts us from feeling joy

How much? How many? These are the questions our gadgets answer for us all day long: We see how many steps we walked, minutes we spent tossing or turning overnight, hours we started at a screen. But technology can’t measure everything. Other, more nebulous concepts, like happiness, creativity, and pain, are harder to translate into data. And yet, we humans love to try.

The United Nations, for example, puts out the annual Happiness Report using a scale called the Cantril ladder, which asks citizens of each country to “think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a zero.” For the fourth year in a row, Finland was ranked the happiest country in the world, but, as the New York Times reports, that title left some Finns shrugging at the subjective nature of happiness.

Another attempt to capture a nebulous human state is the “Alternative Uses Test” which creativity researchers use to try and measure how innovative or ingenious a person is. The method, developed by the American psychologist J. P. Guilford in 1967, asks a participant to take an everyday object, like a brick, cups, paper clips, or a chair, and come up with as many uses for it as possible in two minutes. They are then scored on these four criteria:

Originality: How unusual were your ideas?
Fluency:
How many ideas did you come up with?
Flexibility:
How different were the ideas?
Elaboration:
How much detail could you go into explaining your idea?

So, using a brick as a paperweight wouldn’t impress researchers, but telling a story about weaponizing the brick would score you lots of points in the elaboration category.

I’m intrigued by these attempts to quantify things that bring us joy or purpose, but I worry that we often listen to the numbers instead of ourselves.

That’s why I’m particularly fond of one analog measurement tool: the Wong-Baker FACES Pain Rating Scale. You’ve probably seen it — a spectrum of faces ranging from miserable, tears streaming down that little round face, to smiley, happy as a clam. If you’ve ever been to the emergency room, you may have been asked to point to the one that shows how you feel.

This range of faces was created by a pediatric nurse and child-life specialist in the ’80s because asking kids to quantify their pain is like asking a cat how hungry it is, as the Wong-Baker website explains:

Young children had considerable difficulty using any scale with unfamiliar words or scales based on numbering or ranking concepts. The use of the Numeric Rating Scale was growing in popularity at this time, but young children had trouble using the numbers. When children used a color scale, the color choices were not consistent with their peers, making the use of color challenging to replicate on a larger scale. However, the children responded well to facial expressions.

The FACES scale is used around the world by adults, too. Is it precise? Not really. Like happiness and creativity, pain is relative: We all experience and tolerate it differently. But, until we get chips implanted in our brains or figure out a way to use A.I. to objectively measure pain, this scale is effective. And I like how it asks us to check in with ourselves: How do I feel?

It’s a question worth asking regularly. Relying on the number — outsourcing our measurement of success — to “optimize” our health or measure the value of our ideas, is all too easy. At the end of the day, no gadget can reflect how well I dealt with my anxiety over my to-do list; how satisfied I am with my execution of the tasks on said list; or whether I felt like said tasks were worthy of being listed in the first place.

Only I can take note of when I rush the kids through breakfast rather than sit down with them and actually savor my coffee. Or recognize when I don’t do any stretching or breathing in the morning, I get super tight in my shoulders and grouchier as the hours pass. Or mentally replay the moment I live for as a radio host: When I asked someone well-known a question they hadn’t considered, and I can hear the gears in their brain turning.

It’s hard for me, but I want to pass my days more loose and relaxed, give myself time to taste what I eat, and do work that makes people reconsider something they thought they knew. That’s the standard I’ve set for myself over the past year. No data can help me accomplish it; more often than not, any impact I’ve had on people in my life certainly can’t be measured in dollars. I’ll know I’ve met my measurements of success when I sit my ass down and remember to feel it.

Journalist, mom, Swiss-Persian New Yorker. Host of @NPR’s @TEDRadioHour + @ZigZagPod. Author of Bored+Brilliant. Media Entrepreneur-ish. ManoushZ.com/newsletter

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store