Measuring happiness

How do you measure happiness? Is there an objective and quantitative way to know if a person falls within “acceptable happiness parameters”? My answer might sound like it comes from one of those self-help books. Or Zen philosophy. Meh.

So let me tell you the story of how this question came up. I was invited to attend a small gathering of, hmm, philosophically-inclined people (let’s leave it at that). I arrived before the appointed time, and met up with a couple of people. One of them said he was thinking of a way to measure happiness. Naturally, we asked how. On hindsight, I think the “why” is probably more important.

The happiness measurement experiment

The guy (henceforth referred to as the “proposer”) said he would attach equipment that measured a person’s brain waves, heart rate, or some such. I can’t remember the exact details. I think it involved EEG (electroencephalography). Basically, you measure and record the physical signals of a person (henceforth referred to as the “subject”).

The subject would also have to follow a prepared diet, so as to keep the physical input/output of the body consistent. This was when I asked what if the subject tired of the diet. The proposer said there could be slight variations of the diet so as not to bore the subject’s palate, say the weekend fare was different from the weekday fare. This immediately sent red flags to my (programmer/scientific/whatever) senses. But I smiled and gave mild encouragement, as did the other person at the table. I just met this proposer guy, so it’s not really up to me to say anything negative.

For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll say that for an experiment to have merit, the experiment must be repeatable with consistent results. First off, it will be ideal if you have full 24 hour monitoring on the subject, for at least a few weeks. Or a couple of months if your subject is female (I’m not discriminating on gender! I’m just aware of the hormonal changes in a woman’s body, ok?).

Second, the activities of the subject cannot vary. At all. There’s no practical way of determining if a particular activity triggered happiness or induced sadness, if the subject is allowed to do all sorts of activities without any kind of regularity. If the day starts with exercise, then reading, then some writing, then sleep, then that’s how it has to be every day. If you give some leeway on a weekday/weekend difference, then you need to have 2 sets of measurements. And that’s assuming all those activities are performed at exactly (or nearly exactly) the same time. Exercising at 6am, or at 10am, or at 4pm, or at 8pm feels very different.

Grocery shopping is dangerous. (There, I’ve said it)

Frankly speaking, even grocery shopping is dangerous. The subject may be buying some bread. But passing through the meat aisle to get to the bread section might feel very different from passing through the sweets section. Heck, what if the subject meets a close friend? What if the subject meets a hated individual? Small events might trigger a physical signal, but not considered important for consideration. How does one know if those small signals aren’t significant?

Have you had one of those days where you just feel happy? For no apparent reason. Maybe there was a nice breeze in the morning. Your coffee was done just right. That paperwork you dreaded didn’t seem so bad. You fixed a couple of difficult bugs. At dinner, you found out that the nice waitress was getting married (depending on your circumstances, this might sadden you, but whatever…). The book you’ve been reading ended with a flourishing finish. You feel satisfied with your day.

Small events matter. They build up. And you don’t know if there’s causality. And if you don’t, then your measurements aren’t as meaningful.

And then there’s diet… The proposer was very ready to adapt the diet. I’m not so sure. What you put into your body has a direct consequence to your well being, particularly if you know what you’re eating. Change the diet, and you don’t know which foods might have contributed to the happiness measurements (or whether it’s simply because there’s a change that the subject felt happy). Don’t change the diet, and you don’t know whether it’s because the subject got bored of eating the same foods.

Can you keep to a diet?

I have first-hand experience. To keep my living expenses low, I’ve kept my diet fairly consistent. Everyday, with a few rare fails. I came up with a diet that I’m happy (heh) with, and which is affordable. And then I eat those same foods everyday. Those bodybuilders and people who successfully lose weight? They do the same thing. They come up with a diet they’re comfortable with, and they stick to it.

Just to give you an idea, my breakfast is cereal with milk. The brand of the cereal, or the type of cereal might change, but it’s usually cereal. My dinner, for the most of 1 year (as of this writing), had been 4 to 6 (depending on how hungry I was) slices of bread and peanut butter (or occasionally some other bread spreads). Lunch was up for grabs, but I usually eat noodles in soup.

I will tell you something right now. I could distinctly feel my body changing. Heck, I’m not afraid to tell you this. I, uh, smell different. Sometimes, I even feel I’m oozing oil through my pores. I think that’s to do with the (almost) daily consumption of peanut butter. It’s why I’ve, uh, modified the bread spreads, going so far as to even eat something more wholesome, like rice with some meat and vegetables. Ah, the things you do to keep your business costs low…

So yeah, the proposer didn’t even have the discipline to keep to any kind of schedule for the subject. And frankly speaking, the only way to get extremely good consistent results that are meaningful, will be to keep the subject in a prison-like environment. Everything should be as regularly followed as possible, such as activities and diet. Only then can you say with a certain amount of confidence that, yes, that 5 minutes of meditation had a measurable effect, since that was the only day when the subject meditated (and the 2 days before and after had no measurable signals of happiness).

The biggest problem with human experimentation

Even if you managed to keep all the variables consistent, and find a willing participant to follow along, there’s one huge enemy. Boredom.

Hey, I’m quite indifferent to food. As long as it’s fairly palatable, I only care that it’s nutritious. I can eat that regularly, everyday if need be. During my primary school days (for a couple of years), my dinner was practically always barbequed pork rice (or char siew fan, if you understand Cantonese). I guess my indifference to food started then.

Even so, I have my limits, it seems. A steady dinner diet of just bread and peanut butter wore me down. (And I’m also getting tired of people telling me how thin I look. Apparently, my face has thinned, my eyes have sunken in, and my bicep muscles have slightly wasted away, rendering the years of my weights training moot. I’m eating, ok, I’m eating! Sheesh…)

We are humans. The complexity of our minds is too great to fully comprehend, let alone the connection of the mind with the body. How do you really measure happiness? How do you find out which variables affect your mood?

There are too many things to consider. Your particular circumstance. Your education. Your group of friends. The time period when you’re living in (people living 100 years ago probably feel happy just to have bread to eat, while you’re only happy if you get to eat steak #firstworldproblems).

So my answer, after you’ve read all that, is this: The criteria for your happiness is determined by you. Don’t let other people determine what criteria you should meet before you can feel happy.

Happy Song

I played the piano part on my iPhone using the Virtuoso app.

Virtuoso app

Wait, how does it know I’m looking for lov… uh, I mean, hmmm… that’s an interesting advertisement.