The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being

By Derek Bok | Go to book overview

2
THE RELIABILITY OF RESEARCH ON HAPPINESS

Can anyone claim to measure something so elusive, so in- tangible, so changeable as happiness? Jeremy Bentham certainly thought so. To him, measuring happiness and unhappiness was a simple matter of “account and calcu- lation, of profit and loss, just as for money.”1 In later life, how- ever, he began to have doubts about whether the calculations were as simple as he had originally thought. Could someone's varied experiences, pleasures, and pains actually be combined by some mechanical process? And did we really know how to compare one person's happiness (or unhappiness) with another's? “You might as well pretend,” he later wrote, “to add 20 apples to 20 pears.”2


Modern Methods of Measuring Happiness

As pointed out in the preceding chapter, researchers have used two methods to overcome the problems that stymied Bentham. Of the two, experience sampling asks the simplest questions and elicits answers that are least subject to the weaknesses and distortions of memory or judgment. However, the method is expensive, and it is difficult to find enough people who are willing to be called re- peatedly and badgered about their feelings. As a result, researchers often use a simpler variation called the day-reconstruction method in which they ask subjects to recall the various things they did on the preceding day and describe their mood during each activity. Although this approach relies on memory, the remembered events are very recent, and experiments have confirmed that the answers people give are very similar to those obtained by repeatedly calling each subject.3

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