Science has embraced the search for happiness

A lot of effort has gone into studying sadness, but not the opposite. Now is the time to take happiness seriously, says Justin Thomas

The proliferation of smartphones allowed researchers to develop apps that would, for the first time, allow them to collect real-time reports of happiness from the masses. Courtesy Art Sawa
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It’s time to take happiness seriously. We have pain-management clinics, but as far as I know, we don’t have pleasure- management clinics. We take sadness seriously. Happiness however, is often trivialised.

The UAE’s recent appointment of a Minister of State for Happiness raised a few eyebrows and evoked some tongue-in-cheek cynicism: “There will also be ministers for grumpiness, sleepiness, bashfulness and dopeyness,” tweeted one sceptic.

But the emphasis on happiness at the societal level is far from trivial, it reflects great foresight and innovation. A minister of happiness sounds funny to some people, simply because they haven’t heard the phrase before. I’d love to see colleges of happiness within our universities too.

A definitive definition of happiness is illusive and great minds have grappled with this philosophical question for millennia. However, few would disagree that the concept of happiness encompasses well-being, existential satisfaction and social good. These are all important issues that sit at the very heart of good governance/leadership, particularly in our relatively affluent and industrialised societies. The leading cause of lost workdays in many developed nations, is depression; and the leading cause of death for people under the age of 25 is suicide. Happiness matters.

Traditionally, governments have used economic prosperity – gross domestic product (GDP) – as an indicator of how well their citizens are doing. Economic depression equals elevated rates of major depressive disorders. However, using GDP as a proxy for the national mood is, at best, a very blunt instrument. What scientists and decision makers want are accurate ways to measure pleasure and quantify joy. Early economists dreamed of a hedonometer, a device that could reliably quantify the subjective state of happiness.

In the 1990s the dream of measuring happiness enjoyed a revival. The proliferation of smartphones allowed researchers to develop apps that would, for the first time, allow them to collect real-time reports of happiness from the masses. London School of Economics got involved in this, referring to its own happiness measuring app as an hedonimeter. We now have something called hedonometer 2.0, which aims to measure happiness based on the emotive content of Twitter posts. According to hedonometer 2.0, the happiest state in the US last week was Hawaii. The least happy? Oregon.

The measurement of happiness (subjective well-being) is an increasingly serious business and it has become essential to the evaluation and monitoring of many international economic strategy recommendations. For this reason, there has been an intensified focus on the development and validation of instruments that can usefully and reliably measure the slippery construct we call happiness.

One study in the UK involved more than 23,000 participants. A collaboration between the BBC and psychologists at the University of Liverpool, it was referred to as the “stress test” and it helped the researchers validate their questionnaire-based measure of subjective well-being on a relatively large and diverse population. The findings confirmed that there were three interrelated components of subjective well-being: psychological, physical and relational. The BBC subjective well-being scale, as the questionnaire is known, appears to be valid and reliable.

There is a business cliché that runs something like: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Well, increasingly, we are able to measure happiness, which raises the question: what can or should we do to manage it? This is where, Ohood Al Roumi, the new Minister of State for Happiness comes in.

As a psychologist, I am excited about what initiatives will be launched to promote well-being. Which ones will work and how will they be evaluated? One thing I know from experience is that existential satisfaction, social good and physical and psychological well-being should never be trivialised; these are among the most important facets of human life. Wealth is worthless, without well-being.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas