You can’t try to measure happiness, but what matters is knowing it

I often wonder how happy our cat Spice is when she is asleep and this is happening now as I post this blog.

Could she possibly be happier?

Could she possibly be happier?

She looks pretty happy to me but how would I go about measuring the extent of this? I have blogged about happiness before but here is a new attempt.

I would probably want to know in terms of Spice: whether there have been any recent happy experiences (a good breakfast); what she has been up to the previous night (we must put a spy cam on her collar!); how comfortable the blanket is (soft  and woollen); how noisy things are around her currently (pretty quiet on a Sunday morning); what she is dreaming about (the next meal or night-time adventure?); whether curling up in a ball is a good way of  keeping the light out, staying warm, indicating happiness etc

The list could go on for ever.

The point I am making is that I will never know all the ingredients of her contentment, how significant each one is, how they all add up to one big feeling of cat-like happiness and whether things could be better for her. She can’t speak to me about it!

We need to try and apply the same approach to understanding our own happiness and that of our (human) loved ones. This means moving away from over-deterministic measures of individual factors, that often feature within policy debates, to looking at the overall landscape.

Think of a graphic equalizer.


iTunes graphic equalizer (Copyright @2000-2013 Apple Inc.)

Imagine each column is a separate measure of a person’s happiness, if that were possible, but in sound frequency terms. You can preset it to a type of music (the above graphic equalizer is on Rhythm and Blues) and move all the slides in a coordinated way without really understanding what you are doing. What matters is the perceived quality of what you are listening to.

Tools and measurements can help give us a sense of where we are and what might change, but they can’t determine for us what happiness actually is. We have to ‘know’ what happiness is and we should apply this judgement to others as objectively as possible.