On Measuring Happiness

James Farrell on Club Troppo nicely summarizes Richard Layard’s thesis on happiness (see Happiness: Lessons from a New Science). The comments to the post are also very interesting.
Crooked Timber offers one such comment on the measurement of happiness. Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve long argued that these questions can’t really tell us anything, and an example given by Don Arthur gives me the chance to put it better than I’ve done before, I hope.

Suppose you wanted to establish whether children’s height increased with age, but you couldn’t measure height directly.

One way to respond to this problem would be to interview groups of children in different classes at school, and asked them the question Don suggests “On a scale of 1 to 10, how tall are you?”. My guess is that the data would look pretty much like reported data on the relationship between happiness and income.

That is, within the groups, you’d find that kids who were old relative to their classmates tended to be report higher numbers than those who were young relative to their classmates (for the obvious reason that, on average, the older ones would in fact be taller than their classmates).

But, for all groups, I suspect you’d find that the median response was something like 7. Even though average age is higher for higher classes, average reported height would not change (or not change much).

So you’d reach the conclusion that height was a subjective construct depending on relative, rather than absolute, age. If you wanted, you could establish some sort of metaphorical link between being old relative to your classmates and being “looked up to”.

But in reality, height does increase with (absolute) age and the problem is with the scaling of the question. A question of this kind can only give relative answers.


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