Are you happy? a debate on whether self-reported happiness scores actually mean anything

The Freakonomics blog is hosting an interesting debate on why women report being less happy today than they were 35 years ago. This appears to hold true across ages, occupations, educational levels, marital status and almost any other variable you can think of. (Exception: black women report an increase in happiness).

I think Steven Levitt is right to point out that, even if many researchers are trying to make the study of happiness more, well, scientific, the methodology is intrinsically unreliable and the question itself has such a big halo of cognitive and linguistic uncertainty to be largely meaningless. Suppose a researcher came to you and asked you: are you happy? I would have said yes this morning while drinking my favorite cup of tea, and no way in hell later today while stuck in the Rome airport due to a delay in the arrival of the incoming aircraft for my outbound flight. In general, though, and abstracting from incidental circumstances, are you happy? My answer: I really don’t know. How would I know happiness if it stared me in the face? would I have deserved it? and, should I ever be happy, would I lose my drive and stop being able to get stuff done?

Supposing the scores actually mean anything, though, I also wouldn’t discount the ever-increasing expectations for female perfection in our society. Martina posted today on Adverblog the latest video, Onslaught, made by Ogilvy for Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. It is worth watching as a commentary on Levitt’s question – truly a case when a video is worth more than a thousand words.

3 thoughts on “Are you happy? a debate on whether self-reported happiness scores actually mean anything

  1. I have often thought that these types of survey are structurally flawed – I find it almost surprising that people can get funding to do the work (unless they come up with a much more robust measure – maybe a proxy like seratonin levels or some such?). Your link is as structurally flawed as well though – too many http’s at the front.

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