A Better Science of Happiness

Happiness studies can point the way to ever-higher levels of well-being and inspire politicians to design wiser policies.
We visit two pioneering researchers in Spain.

Carmelo Vázquez receives his apologetic foreign visitor with open arms and a broad smile. He’s not one to get grumpy just because somebody shows up a little late. “How wonderful that you’ve made it!” he exclaims.

As we sit down, a thought occurs to Vázquez, one of the world’s first researchers on happiness and professor of psychopathology at the Complutense University of Madrid. He immediately gets up again and takes a book off a shelf. He places it on the coffee table in silence and awaits a reaction. The book’s title explains his triumphant smile: Optimismo inteligente.

Vázquez coauthored the work, which outlines a “psychology of positive emotions,” in 1997. He recalls a colleague’s response: “He congratulated me on the book and said, ‘You’re so brave!’ Back then, it wasn’t too fashionable to take positive emotions seriously.”

Since then, things have changed. Policy makers, mostly in Europe, have begun questioning the value of indicators like gross national product, which simply tots up economic activity. And they’re working to devise programs designed to increase citizens’ happiness. The United Nations has called for feelings of well-being to be included in the next set of data for the Human Development Index.

The increased interest in happiness has spurred more and more scholars to study the subject. Scientists are steadily refining methods for determining how happy we are and how we can become more so. Their findings have implications not only for individuals’ personal lives and choices but also for politicians’ and public servants’ ability to set better agendas and priorities.

Not all the studies are equally sound, however. Some merely ask people to rate their own experience of happiness, leading to results that are far too subjective. The more thorough research sounds out a range of emotions and feelings so that a fuller picture emerges. “If you were to measure depression simply by asking people how depressed they feel, everybody understands the results wouldn’t be very useful,” Vázquez says. “So researchers on depression also measure lack of appetite, lack of desire to meet people, sexual dysfunction and other things so they can create a more general picture.” The best happiness research takes a similar approach.

With his colleague Gonzalo Hervás—who’s joined our conversation—Vázquez has recently devised a new means of measuring the emotion the pair prefers to call “well-being” or “life satisfaction.” Their Pemberton Happiness Index—named for the founder of Coca-Cola, the company that cofunded the research—overcomes a key problem scientists have faced.

They may be on to something. With their track record, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Together they founded the Spanish Society of Positive Psychology. Vázquez heads the International Positive Psychology Association and represents Spain in the European Network for Positive Psychology. Hervás has authored dozens of studies published in leading journals, among them Behavior Therapy, The Journal of Positive Psychology and Emotion.

Two forms of happiness can be studied and measured. First, there’s the hedonic type: our satisfaction with our lives and the recent experiences and events that affect our mood. Then there’s the eudaimonic kind, which has to do with self-actualization and personal growth. The first type is more emotional and intuitive; the second is steadier and more fundamental. “Our index tries to reflect these two different lenses for looking at happiness,” Vázquez says.

Their approach eliminates a well-known problem in happiness research. While subjects answering questionnaires tend to search their memories in a rational manner, memory biases lead all of us to recall events that stand out in a positive or negative sense. Though these are influential, they hardly matter for the overall picture. So the context of the questionnaire can taint research results.

“If I ask you how many positive experiences you’ve had today,” Vázquez says, “then you may tell me you had almost none. Your plane was delayed. You were in a rush. You got lost. You got confused by the address. You couldn’t reach me by phone…. A researcher could conclude you had a miserable life.” That conclusion would be overly hasty, according to Vázquez, since all those things happened as the subject was cycling through one of Europe’s most beautiful cities on a dazzling spring day while doing the world’s most wonderful job.

He and Hervás are modest about their index. It isn’t the last word; they emphasize that more research is needed. They say they would have liked to study an even bigger, more international group of subjects. Their modesty suggests the scale of their ambition: to create a more nuanced index that would do justice to the complex social science they practice and serve to measure the success of political decisions.

You might wonder what purpose all this research serves. What good does it do us to know how we rate—individually or collectively, as inhabitants of a country—on a scale of 1 to 10? Hervás and Vázquez get that question a lot. “The rankings are just for the newspapers, so they have a fun item,” Hervás says with a smile. More seriously, he adds, the results are a good way of evaluating whether governments are doing their job properly.

There’s a clear relationship between citizens’ experience of happiness and various public policies, such as those that provide for good public transport and greater political freedom. Relatively low inequality, a progressive tax system and proximity to nature are also linked to increased well-being. And can it be a coincidence that most countries that consistently rank among the world’s happiest have robust social safety nets?

“We know from research that reducing the unemployment rate is much more important for overall well-being than the rate of economic growth,” Hervás adds. “If someone loses his or her job, it breaks the whole structure of well-being, so it seems important for politicians to know that creating jobs is fundamental.”

Immanuel Kant said happiness shouldn’t be the purpose of politics. The Spanish researchers disagree. “Maybe politicians can’t make us feel happier,” Vázquez says, “but they are able to provide the conditions that lead us to feel happier.” And that, he feels, obliges them to do so.

It’s logical that politics and happiness should be linked, according to Vázquez. After all, what good is social policy if it’s not designed to improve citizens’ lives? “Politicians need to be brave,” he says, “and face up to the measurement of happiness to evaluate their work.”

In acknowledging the importance of happiness research, the scholars say, we should also finally acknowledge the limitations of current economic indicators. They point to Bhutan, whose king famously got furious at how his small country languishes at the bottom of various international rankings on economic metrics, even though his people respect nature, live peacefully and are, in general, highly satisfied. Bhutan’s king coined the phrase “gross national happiness” to offer an alternative. “For decades, we’ve been measuring human development with strictly economic criteria,” Vázquez says. “We can do better than that.”

The Pemberton Happiness Index will serve as a source of inspiration not just in politics but also in our personal lives. Vázquez and Hervás are refining a useful add-on: fill out an online questionnaire to measure your happiness level and you’ll receive custom tips for raising it. One person might be advised to get outdoors more; another, to contemplate whether her current job suits her values.

For Vázquez, this work—raising happiness as well as measuring it—harks back to the route by which he became professionally involved in the subject. Like the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman (who wrote the foreword to Optimismo inteligente), Vázquez initially studied depression. People with depression hold a negative view of the world based on how they interpret events in their lives; intelligent optimists are able to maintain a positive one in the same circumstances. “That is our normal, healthy state,” Vázquez says.

Learning to shed emotional baggage isn’t just a science; it’s also an art. And fortunately, we can continue to advance both. Looking for a word to convey his enthusiasm for the opportunities afforded by the new index, Vázquez laughs. “I’m very happy with it.” 

Solution News Source

A Better Science of Happiness

Happiness studies can point the way to ever-higher levels of well-being and inspire politicians to design wiser policies.
We visit two pioneering researchers in Spain.

Carmelo Vázquez receives his apologetic foreign visitor with open arms and a broad smile. He’s not one to get grumpy just because somebody shows up a little late. “How wonderful that you’ve made it!” he exclaims.

As we sit down, a thought occurs to Vázquez, one of the world’s first researchers on happiness and professor of psychopathology at the Complutense University of Madrid. He immediately gets up again and takes a book off a shelf. He places it on the coffee table in silence and awaits a reaction. The book’s title explains his triumphant smile: Optimismo inteligente.

Vázquez coauthored the work, which outlines a “psychology of positive emotions,” in 1997. He recalls a colleague’s response: “He congratulated me on the book and said, ‘You’re so brave!’ Back then, it wasn’t too fashionable to take positive emotions seriously.”

Since then, things have changed. Policy makers, mostly in Europe, have begun questioning the value of indicators like gross national product, which simply tots up economic activity. And they’re working to devise programs designed to increase citizens’ happiness. The United Nations has called for feelings of well-being to be included in the next set of data for the Human Development Index.

The increased interest in happiness has spurred more and more scholars to study the subject. Scientists are steadily refining methods for determining how happy we are and how we can become more so. Their findings have implications not only for individuals’ personal lives and choices but also for politicians’ and public servants’ ability to set better agendas and priorities.

Not all the studies are equally sound, however. Some merely ask people to rate their own experience of happiness, leading to results that are far too subjective. The more thorough research sounds out a range of emotions and feelings so that a fuller picture emerges. “If you were to measure depression simply by asking people how depressed they feel, everybody understands the results wouldn’t be very useful,” Vázquez says. “So researchers on depression also measure lack of appetite, lack of desire to meet people, sexual dysfunction and other things so they can create a more general picture.” The best happiness research takes a similar approach.

With his colleague Gonzalo Hervás—who’s joined our conversation—Vázquez has recently devised a new means of measuring the emotion the pair prefers to call “well-being” or “life satisfaction.” Their Pemberton Happiness Index—named for the founder of Coca-Cola, the company that cofunded the research—overcomes a key problem scientists have faced.

They may be on to something. With their track record, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Together they founded the Spanish Society of Positive Psychology. Vázquez heads the International Positive Psychology Association and represents Spain in the European Network for Positive Psychology. Hervás has authored dozens of studies published in leading journals, among them Behavior Therapy, The Journal of Positive Psychology and Emotion.

Two forms of happiness can be studied and measured. First, there’s the hedonic type: our satisfaction with our lives and the recent experiences and events that affect our mood. Then there’s the eudaimonic kind, which has to do with self-actualization and personal growth. The first type is more emotional and intuitive; the second is steadier and more fundamental. “Our index tries to reflect these two different lenses for looking at happiness,” Vázquez says.

Their approach eliminates a well-known problem in happiness research. While subjects answering questionnaires tend to search their memories in a rational manner, memory biases lead all of us to recall events that stand out in a positive or negative sense. Though these are influential, they hardly matter for the overall picture. So the context of the questionnaire can taint research results.

“If I ask you how many positive experiences you’ve had today,” Vázquez says, “then you may tell me you had almost none. Your plane was delayed. You were in a rush. You got lost. You got confused by the address. You couldn’t reach me by phone…. A researcher could conclude you had a miserable life.” That conclusion would be overly hasty, according to Vázquez, since all those things happened as the subject was cycling through one of Europe’s most beautiful cities on a dazzling spring day while doing the world’s most wonderful job.

He and Hervás are modest about their index. It isn’t the last word; they emphasize that more research is needed. They say they would have liked to study an even bigger, more international group of subjects. Their modesty suggests the scale of their ambition: to create a more nuanced index that would do justice to the complex social science they practice and serve to measure the success of political decisions.

You might wonder what purpose all this research serves. What good does it do us to know how we rate—individually or collectively, as inhabitants of a country—on a scale of 1 to 10? Hervás and Vázquez get that question a lot. “The rankings are just for the newspapers, so they have a fun item,” Hervás says with a smile. More seriously, he adds, the results are a good way of evaluating whether governments are doing their job properly.

There’s a clear relationship between citizens’ experience of happiness and various public policies, such as those that provide for good public transport and greater political freedom. Relatively low inequality, a progressive tax system and proximity to nature are also linked to increased well-being. And can it be a coincidence that most countries that consistently rank among the world’s happiest have robust social safety nets?

“We know from research that reducing the unemployment rate is much more important for overall well-being than the rate of economic growth,” Hervás adds. “If someone loses his or her job, it breaks the whole structure of well-being, so it seems important for politicians to know that creating jobs is fundamental.”

Immanuel Kant said happiness shouldn’t be the purpose of politics. The Spanish researchers disagree. “Maybe politicians can’t make us feel happier,” Vázquez says, “but they are able to provide the conditions that lead us to feel happier.” And that, he feels, obliges them to do so.

It’s logical that politics and happiness should be linked, according to Vázquez. After all, what good is social policy if it’s not designed to improve citizens’ lives? “Politicians need to be brave,” he says, “and face up to the measurement of happiness to evaluate their work.”

In acknowledging the importance of happiness research, the scholars say, we should also finally acknowledge the limitations of current economic indicators. They point to Bhutan, whose king famously got furious at how his small country languishes at the bottom of various international rankings on economic metrics, even though his people respect nature, live peacefully and are, in general, highly satisfied. Bhutan’s king coined the phrase “gross national happiness” to offer an alternative. “For decades, we’ve been measuring human development with strictly economic criteria,” Vázquez says. “We can do better than that.”

The Pemberton Happiness Index will serve as a source of inspiration not just in politics but also in our personal lives. Vázquez and Hervás are refining a useful add-on: fill out an online questionnaire to measure your happiness level and you’ll receive custom tips for raising it. One person might be advised to get outdoors more; another, to contemplate whether her current job suits her values.

For Vázquez, this work—raising happiness as well as measuring it—harks back to the route by which he became professionally involved in the subject. Like the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman (who wrote the foreword to Optimismo inteligente), Vázquez initially studied depression. People with depression hold a negative view of the world based on how they interpret events in their lives; intelligent optimists are able to maintain a positive one in the same circumstances. “That is our normal, healthy state,” Vázquez says.

Learning to shed emotional baggage isn’t just a science; it’s also an art. And fortunately, we can continue to advance both. Looking for a word to convey his enthusiasm for the opportunities afforded by the new index, Vázquez laughs. “I’m very happy with it.” 

Solution News Source

SIGN UP

TO GET A Free DAILY DOSE OF OPTIMISM


We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously. Privacy Policy