THE SIGNIFICANCE OF HAPPINESS RESEARCH
After 35 years of intensive research, what have investigators discovered that adds significantly to the teachings of that champion of happiness, Jeremy Bentham? Essentially, researchers have succeeded in doing what Bentham could not accomplish: to devise a way of measuring how happy people are and how much pleasure or pain they derive from the ordinary events and conditions of their lives. As a result, investiga- tors are often able to reach conclusions that can help lawmakers decide which legislative programs are most likely to improve the well-being of the citizenry. It is true that many of these findings merely echo what some philosopher or theologian said centuries ago. Nevertheless, since prominent thinkers have so often disagreed with one another in discussing happiness, the new research does a valuable service by providing empirical evidence to suggest which insights are correct and which seem to be invalid.
Investigators have achieved this result by the simple technique of asking individuals either to describe their feelings at particular times during the day or to estimate how happy or satisfied they feel about the lives they are leading. The answers may not always be accurate. When collected from large numbers of people, however, they give a fairly reliable picture of what conditions and experi- ences of life tend to be associated with happiness or distress, how intensely people feel such emotions, and how long the sentiments last. The findings correlate significantly with independent evidence of happiness ranging from activity in the brain to the estimates of friends and relatives. All in all, they seem at least as accurate as many of the statistics commonly used by policy-makers in Wash- ington and other centers of government.