Is There A Way To Measure Happiness?

Every year the World Happiness Report tells us just how happy (or unhappy) the country we live in really is. More often than not, Nordic countries feature heavily at the top. In 2016, Denmark has taken top honors, while the United States has ranked 13th on the World Happiness Index.1 But is there a way, beyond the realms of economics and social sciences, to measure happiness? As the scientific community delves into the psychological and biological indicators of happiness, some interesting insights emerge.

Does Your Body Act Differently When You’re Happy?

Psychological well-being and mental health do have some bearing on physical health, with the former having a positive effect on the latter. Alternative therapy widely believes in the influence one has on the other, as does psychological study. The absence of happiness, when extreme, can result in depression or anxiety, and other negative emotions which also impact the physical body.2 It follows that there must be a way to look at the physiology of the body to evaluate happiness.

How Is Happiness Measured?

The most common method to measure happiness, especially by social scientists, is a survey administered via questionnaire or interview. However, the limitations of such studies are that they rely on self-scoring by the test subjects. External factors including their mood that day, environmental factors such as how hot or cold they feel can all influence their responses. This makes it very subjective. For a more decisive rating of happiness on a scale that allows for comparison of happiness levels between people, there is the need for a biological measure.3

Studies of the brain have indicated that there is no single happiness center. However, emotion control centers are present in the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, amygdala, insular cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex.4

Measuring The Happy Chemicals

Enter the “happy chemicals,” produced by the brain when it sees something it perceives as being good for upping your chances of survival. A primal manifestation of unadulterated happiness. Together these chemicals – endorphin, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin – give you that familiar feeling associated with happiness.5

Specifically, dopamine gives you the happiness associated with finding something you want or seek; endorphins protect you from pain with a happily “oblivious” state; oxytocin is associated with happiness that stems from social bonds/connections; and serotonin makes you feel happy and secure about dominating a social situation. Neurochemicals are the brain’s way of rewarding you with happiness for doing something good.6 However, the exact “normal” levels of these neurochemicals are both hard to determine and difficult to pin down in a specific range that is universally applicable. Instead, psychologists and medical health professionals use a combination of questionnaires, psychological tests, and a

check of patient history. This helps determine whether or not someone has experienced a change in specific neurotransmitters. And that’s how they arrive at a clinical diagnosis of happiness or, in many cases, of disorders associated with very high or very low levels of these happiness chemicals.7 Multiple studies are underway to explore the impact of dopamine and serotonin levels in the body, with studies on endorphins also gathering momentum.

Happiness Genes May Hold Key To Determining Happiness

Now it seems like there could be another route to measuring happiness. Recently concluded landmark research, involving 300,000 test subjects and 190 specialists from a whopping 140 institutions, has shown the possible existence of “happiness genes.” With three genetic variants that may determine happiness or feelings someone has about their life, measuring the potential or propensity for happiness could be more effective in a few years’ time. However, as the researchers caution, this isn’t the only

factor and environment plays as much of a role in determining happiness.8

Research on the happiness genes and happiness chemicals is likely to be in focus in the years ahead. And if things pan out, it may one day even be possible to get a blood workup done to discover just how happy you really are.