Are You Happy?

Chances are if someone were to ask you, right now, if you were happy, you’d say you were.1 Claiming that you’re happy—that is, to an interviewer who is asking you to rate your “life satisfaction” on a scale from zero to ten—appears to be nearly universal, as long as you’re not living in a war zone, on the street, or in extreme emotional or physical pain. The Maasai of Kenya, soccer moms of Scarsdale, the Amish, the Inughuit of Greenland, European businessmen—all report that they are happy. When happiness researcher Ed Diener, the past president of the International Society of Quality of Life Studies, synthesized 916 surveys of over a million people in forty-five countries, he found that, on average, people placed themselves at seven on the zero-to-ten scale.2

No doubt the conditions in which these 916 surveys were taken, and their methodologies and measures, were inconsistent. In some cases, respondents were approached face-to-face, at home. In others, they were interviewed by phone. Some conversations were mediated by translators, others by village elders. In some surveys, people were asked, “Generally speaking would you say you are very happy, fairly happy, not too happy?” In others they were asked how they’d rank, on a one-to-seven scale, the conditions of their life. In yet another they were asked to locate themselves on a ladder of self-satisfaction, where the bottom rung, zero, was “the worst possible life” and the top rung, ten, was “the best possible life.”

This ladder was constructed by demographers at the Gallup organization as part of its World Poll, begun in 2005, in which a representative sampling of adults in 132 countries were asked the same set of questions in an effort to serve up consistent cross-cultural data. Whether that kind of consistency is possible is questionable—but so is pinning down happiness and its various proxies like life satisfaction and well-being. As Steve Crabtree, one of the researchers involved in the development of the World Poll, wrote recently in the Gallup Management Journal, “If ever there was a concept that sounds ‘fuzzy,’ well-being is it.”3
(In the same survey, respondents were also asked if they smiled a lot the previous day and if they had been treated with respect that day.)

Nonetheless, Crabtree was confident that his colleagues had “cracked the code,” and developed ways to get valid measures of happiness, both individually and nationally, and across income groups and genders and age cohorts. Diener is too. In an essay called “Subjective Well-Being: The Science of Happiness and Life Satisfaction,” he observes that self-reports of happiness mirror “expert” analyses, which he considers to be a good indication of their reliability. He also notes that people like being asked how they are feeling because calling on them to rate themselves is “democratic” and “grants respect.”4 Of course, this may lead some to wonder if there isn’t a kind of Heisenberg effect in play here: if being asked how one feels enhances one’s sense of well-being,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.