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How do we measure happiness?

 April 3, 2024 at 4:56 PM PDT

S1: It's time for Midday Edition on KPBS. Today , we're talking about a new global report that finds Americans are growing less happy. So how do we fix that ? I'm Jade Hindman. Here's to conversations that keep you informed , inspired , and make you think. Happiness is measured in so many ways.

S2: One of the top predictors of happiness around the globe is simply having someone to count on in times of need , and so I think social connection is a pretty big deal.

S1: From friendships to social programs , today's conversation is a blueprint on how to make our society happier. That's ahead on Midday Edition. Welcome in San Diego , it's Jade Hyndman. A recent global report says Americans are growing less happy. Well , now California has a task force to study why that's the case in the Golden State. This is midday Edition , connecting our communities through conversation. Can we legislate our way to happiness ? California Assembly Member Anthony Rendon thinks we can. He's created a first in the nation group to study happiness. Here's how their hearing in March started.

S3: Uh , welcome to the first committee hearing on the newly formed Select Committee on Happiness and Public Policy Outcomes. All right.

S1: So the story goes like this. A little over a decade ago , Assembly member Rendon became a little obsessed with the 2011 documentary happy.

S3: I watched that film probably 14 times within 2 or 3 day period.

S1: The film explores human happiness across 14 countries. It got him thinking about how California considers happiness within its public policy decisions.

S3: This may , in fact , be the first hearing of any state government on this topic , but this is a topic where we are very far behind the rest of the world.

S1: Three quarters of California adults say they're very happy or pretty happy , and just over a quarter say they're not too happy. That's according to 2023 data from the Public Policy Institute of California. The not too happy group has nearly doubled since the institute started gathering data in 1998. Meanwhile , the U.S. just dropped out of the top 20 happiest countries , according to the United Nations World Happiness Report. We're now down to 23 compared to last year's 15. Today on Midday Edition , it's all about happiness. How do you measure it and how do you find it ? Our first guest knows a thing or two about that. Joining me now is Laura Acton. She's co-editor of the World Happiness Report and professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Laura , welcome. Hi.

S2: Hi. Thanks for having me.

S1: So glad to have you here. Okay.

S2: This year's report focuses on one particular topic of happiness across the lifespan and across the ages. But each report has its own focus , or has over the years , and kind of. One main central feature that draws people into the report is chapter two , where some of the authors rank countries by happiness and and that often receives a lot of newsworthy attention as countries around the world are interested in where their country ranks in this global ranking.


S2: And so while questions regarding happiness were often those that were left to the philosophers hundreds of or thousands of years ago , the science of happiness has suggested that there are ways to track people's happiness. And while there may be multiple accounts on how to do it , kind of the leading insight is to simply ask people how they themselves are doing. This can take many forms , so you can ask people how they're feeling in the moment , but kind of the central index or measure that we use in the World Happiness Report has people describing how happy they are with their lives as a whole , using a measure called the control ladder , that simply asked people to imagine this 11 rung ladder that goes from 0 to 10 , and asking them where they would place themselves on this imaginary hypothetical letter.


S2: And this is a large and very quickly evolving area of research. But I think it's important to know first and foremost that , you know , people are very capable and quick and ready to often report their life satisfaction and their momentary well-being. Although we take people as kind of the ultimate source or authority on their own well-being , it's nice to know that other points of information kind of converge and nicely coalesce on people's self-reports. So for instance , if we look at activation and pleasure centers of the brain , or if we ask close friends and family how happy someone might appear to be , these responses often nicely converge on people's self-reported happiness. And so I think there's lots of reason to put faith and heavily wait , what people are saying about their lives as a whole ? But who are some of the happiest people ? Well , at the individual level , these tend to be people who have their basic needs met. And so while income doesn't perfectly predict people's levels of happiness , having a basic level of income that helps keep people out of poverty and some of life's stressors , that's quite important. Other factors that seem to predict people's well-being is their their physical health , but also their connections and relationships with others. For instance , one of the top predictors of happiness around the globe is simply having someone to count on in times of need. And so I think social connection is a pretty big deal. Another major factor we see in the report is people's level of engagement with their. One way to index that is to look at people's benevolence levels. One of the ways we can look at that in the World Happiness Report , using large , amazing surveys from the Gallup World poll , is to see whether people have donated to charity in the past month. And on this measure of benevolence , we see that usually people who who have engaged in higher levels of benevolence or more recently engaged in benevolent behavior , are more likely to report higher levels of well-being.

S1: And we always hear about blue zones. So were there any parts of the world or country where people just seem to live happier lives ? Yes.

S2: So in this year's report , like several of the past several years , Scandinavian countries in particular have have ranked really highly. I believe it's for the seventh or eighth year in a row that Finland has ranked number one on self-reported life satisfaction. And so the Scandinavian countries seem to have this high level of life satisfaction that many , many members of these nations are reporting.


S2: But I think one contributing factor is that many of these are kind of smaller nations that perhaps allow more of a social safety net or a well-functioning social safety net. So one thing about many of the Scandinavian countries is that people often pay much more in taxes. That certainly does provide a pinch in people's take home pay , but it often provides a sense of security and support. Many people know that they can take longer family leave when children are born. As children are born and they enter the school system , there's free education all the way in some places through graduate degrees , and it also provides people a safety net that if they choose to leave work or leave work or are fired , they have a lot more freedom and time and flexibility through the supports that they're commuting and their government provides to have time to look elsewhere. And so in terms of a public policy perspective and policy that might support well-being , I think this social safety net gives people kind of the support to pursue and makes them make some important life choices , but also feel the social safety net provides people an opportunity and some flexibility to pursue their interests , but also feel a sense of support from their government and their neighbors to explore these opportunities.

S1: This year's report theme was aging.

S2: And it unveiled a couple interesting findings. First and foremost , I think one of the most newsworthy items that came out of this year's report is that in many places , the happiness or , if you will , the life satisfaction in the of the old and the young differed quite dramatically. So , for instance , in both Canada and the United States , the rankings of life satisfaction um reports provided by the old and the young were over 50 rankings apart. So in Canada and the United States , older adults over the age of 60 were near the top ten , whereas the younger , younger adults , those under 30 were over 50. Rankings below in the in the 60th or so rankings , revealing this pretty stark life satisfaction difference between the old and the young. And in fact , looking at the average reports , we can see these same trends manifest. Um , in most areas of the world , if you look at global data , the young adults , young adults under the age of 30 are reporting some of the highest levels of well-being. Then life satisfaction tends to dip in mid age , reaching the nadir , if you will , around late 40s and 50s , and then begins an upswing as people head into their 50s and their older 50s and 60s and beyond. But in Canada and the United States in particular , there was a very striking departure from these global data , such that young adults under 30 were reporting some of the lowest levels of life satisfaction that we have seen on record for quite some time. And that raises , I think , some important questions about what is going on among young adults in North America.

S1: And the U.S. just lost its spot in the top 20 happiest countries , with an all time low score of 23. As you alluded to , I mean , is youth happiness then the culprit there ? Yes.

S2: Short answers. Yes. I mean , I think it has to do with life satisfaction dropping across most of the ages in the United States. But it is especially being pulled down , weighted down by young adults under 30 who have reported some of the lowest levels of well-being we've seen over the years of the report.

S1: And we'll be talking about youth mental health on the show next week. But back to this definition of happiness.

S2: So there certainly is. The possibility that at some level , different individuals across the lifespan and individuals across cultures might interpret happiness a little bit differently. There's some fascinating research by Laura Carstensen at Stanford University , who shows that kind of what motivates people and how they define happiness might be a little different across the ages , just as it might across cultures. But I also think it's important to kind of acknowledge a couple , a couple kind of countervailing forces. The first is that the main measure of life satisfaction that we use is kind of our our key fixture , at least in the World happiness Report. This Cantrell latter asks people to imagine their best possible life as a whole from this 0 to 10 scale on this imaginary ladder , and that lets people define their preferred vision of life satisfaction in their own terms. And so for some people , that might be exuberance and excitement , never a dull moment , and for other people that might be a calm contentment. And so people are allowed to kind of visualize what is their best possible life in their own terms and rank accordingly. And so while there may be cultural differences in what the ideal life might look like , it allows some flexibility for how people interpret that. The second thing I wanted to mention is that although individual differences about what a preferred life might look like may vary across age and across culture , I think when we zoom out a bit , some of the data in the World Happiness Report in particular shows that there are some common predictors around the globe. And so , for instance , I mentioned before that social relationships or having someone to count on in times of need , which , if you will , is having at least one person to count on in times of need , seems like the most basic low level way to capture whether people have meaningful social relationships in their lives. That seems to be a critical predictor of life satisfaction around the globe.

S1: There's this old adage that , you know , money can't buy happiness.

S2: But beyond a certain point , um , you know , I don't think money brings as much happiness as many of us would suggest. In fact , one of the reasons the World Happiness Report was born was because , um , for a long time , I think there was a global understanding and perhaps driven by economics , but from other fields as well , that GDP would provide a rough enough index of how people were doing that. Maybe we don't even need to ask or probe how people are doing. We can simply look at the the gross national product or the gross domestic product of a nation and extrapolate from there on the quality of people's lives. But I think the science of happiness and the science of well-being and the true impetus for the World Happiness Report is to say we've moved beyond that. GDP isn't the full picture. An individual's income is not the full picture. That allows us to extrapolate how people are living their lives. There's much more to it than that. So income certainly does matter. But it's not all it's not the full story. Yeah.

S4: Yeah.

S1: What about workplace standards and culture ? For example , the four day workweek has been found to make people happier and more efficient.

S2: And so the quality of our relationships there and the quality of our working environment has a strong influence on on our overall well-being , but also just understanding the parameters , our work of our work and how far its tendrils might seep into the rest of our lives is important as well. You mentioned the four day workweek. Not only does that perhaps often a sense of freedom and autonomy and some time away from work , but that provides people the the opportunity to invest some of their energy and their time with other people. And I think kind of having an opportunity to diversify one's friendships beyond the workplace and engage more deeply in their chosen family or family and relationships beyond work is important for well-being as well.


S2: So each year , the Gallup poll asked people to self-report whether they've donated to charity , whether they've helped a stranger and whether they have volunteered in the past month. And this year , in addition to the past 3 or 4 years since Covid , we have seen kind of a general increase compared to pre-COVID. And so while I think many people might have assumed that generosity and various forms of benevolence would have actually decreased since the Covid 19 pandemic , which this global stressor may have , you know , turned our limited attention and resources. Inwards. On the contrary , the data are suggesting that more people are looking outward and helping others. This is true not just in North America , but in all regions of the world. And some of the largest gains are seen in actually in adults under 30.

S1: So let's zoom in a bit to California.

S2: So I think that making happiness is a policy outcome is a really noble and worthwhile attempt. I think there's a lot to be learned , a lot of difference in how we can structure our lives , to have more connection with others , to reduce stressors , and to simply bring more connection to the way we live our lives. And so I don't know the particulars on exactly what this would look like and how it would manifest on the ground. But I think turning our attention to these kind of these possibilities for happiness , instead of just retroactively trying to address ailment and mental health concerns , offers a really promising potential for how to improve the lives of Californians.

S1: Well , I've been very happy to speak with Lara Agnon. She's co-editor of the World Happiness Report and professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Lara , thank you so much.

S2: Thank you for having me.

S1: Coming up , we take a close look at what shapes our individual happiness.

S4: We really kind.

S2: Of get happiness wrong.

S4: We think we need bigger , radical changes to our circumstances. We need to change our job and get more money. And most of the time , those things aren't going to change our happiness levels as much as we assume.

S1: You're listening to KPBS Midday Edition. Welcome back to KPBS Midday Edition. I'm your host , Jade Hindman. Today's show is all about happiness , how to measure it , how to get it , and why it matters. We've talked about global measures of happiness , but what does it look like on an individual level ? What makes us happy ? Is it something we can learn ? Well , there's a whole science behind that. And Professor Laurie Santos teaches Yale University's most popular course , psychology and the Good Life. She's also host of the podcast The Happiness Lab. Laurie , welcome to midday.

S4: Thanks so much for having me on the show.

S1: Glad to have you here. So let's start with your famous class.

S4: I think so many of us think we know what it takes to feel happy. But lots of research shows that by and large , we're wrong. It's not really about changing our circumstances or getting more money. It's often more about changing our behaviors and our mindsets. And so we start with the misconception. But then we spend most of the class talking about the kinds of things that really will make us happier. And these are practices like changing our behaviors to be a little bit more socially connected , doing more nice things for others , strategies where we change our mindset , trying to find a mindset of a bit more presence and gratitude , and then changing a little bit more about our self-talk , finding ways to be a little bit less self-critical. And so these are all strategies that we know from the evidence really can improve happiness. Wow.

S1: Wow. So there's a lot that goes into that. How do researchers like you define happiness ? Yeah.

S4: Well , many social scientists think of happiness as having two parts. It's kind of like being happy in your life and being happy with your life. You might think of these as the emotional parts of happiness and the cognitive or the thinking parts of happiness. So being happy in your life is the fact that you have a decent amount of positive emotions. You have joy and contentment and laughter and so on , and those positive emotions are in a pretty good ratio to the negative emotions. Happiness isn't about having no negative emotions , but ideally you want the positive ones to outweigh the negative. That's kind of being happy in your life , but being happy with your life is how you think your life is going. It's your answer to the question , all things considered. How satisfied are you with your life ? And you know , most of the research I talk about in my course is trying to find ways that we can boost both of these parts of happiness at once so that you're getting more positive emotion , or you're also more satisfied. You think your life is going better , too.

S1: Well , let's break down some of those components of happiness that you mentioned. I mean , what's the difference between happiness and joy ? Is there a difference ? Yeah.

S4: I mean , we can get into all these terminological differences. The way I think about these different concepts is that joy in some sense is an emotion , right ? It's one of those ways of being happy in your life is having a lot of joy. You know , you can have other ones , right ? You can have a lot of , you know , contentment or purpose or laughter. Right ? So I think of joy as a positive emotion that goes into the overall sense that you're happy in your life. And therefore , if you have a lot of joy , you'll probably be happier with your life as well.

S1: Let me ask you this because I hear the word contentment a lot , and I know that it's always a debate. I think , in a struggle in a lot of people's minds , whether it's in personal relationships or work , the term contentment versus settling , there's a difference between the two. Yeah.

S4: I mean , I think one of the one of the things about contentment that can be really powerful is it's allowing the situation as it really is. You know , there's some situations that we really can change. And I think in those domains we really don't want to settle , you know , we want to push for better alternatives. But there's some situations that we really kind of can't change around. You know , they're there. You know , we you know , in my own life I'm in my midlife right now. You know , I'm watching aging , I'm watching wrinkles and these sort of things. Right. I can either be content with those changes , like look to them with gratitude , look at the benefits that come from those changes. Or I can kind of push , push , push , you know , against them. And so , you know , I don't think you might say that I'm settling for those changes. It's just the way reality is. It's just kind of how life goes. Right. But through contentment , I can actually allow those situations to be there and to find some , like positive benefits of these things , to find gratitude. And so I think one of the things we realized from the work on happiness is that when we find contentment , when we allow things to be there as they are , it's it's far from settling , rather , that we can know the things in life that we really can change and we can push for those changes effectively , but also know the stuff that just is the way it is , and we can kind of accept it.

S1: Tell me more about that.

S4: One is that gratitude just feels good. So it's yet another one of these positive emotions that can make us feel good in our lives. But gratitude also has an interesting feature which allows us to recognize the good stuff that we already have. It allows us to overcome what researchers call hedonistic adaptation , which is just the fact that we get used to good stuff in our lives. And so I think this can be really powerful , you know , there's so many benefits in our lives. That we just take for granted. I was reading an interesting memoir about someone who got very sick and was on dialysis , and I had this moment of gratitude where I realized , oh my gosh , my kidneys work right now. You know , all your listeners out there who maybe have kidneys that work , maybe have just taken it for granted , but if they didn't work , it would be terrible. And that's the power of gratitude. It can kind of cause us to take a moment to recognize this thing in the background. That's wonderful that if we lost it , we'd be so disappointed , so devastated. It can cause us to really understand that it's there. And we take a moment to kind of feel that gratitude that comes with it. So the gratitude can really help us overcome taking things in our lives that are really good for granted. Hmm.

S5: Hmm.


S4: Right ? I think when we think about the kinds of things that make us happy , we often assume that the environment is going to matter a lot. In fact , there's a famous study by the recently passed away Danny Kahneman , the Nobel Prize winning psychologist , that looked at this. He had folks , imagine that you're going to university , either in California or somewhere in the Midwest where it's really cold. And he had people predict like , well , what would that environment do to your happiness ? And everyone assumed that living in California would be happier than living in the Midwest , I think at KPBS. This is a good thing to notice , right ? That , like , Californians are just happier , right ? But of course , if you look at a student's day to day life , they're in midterms and there's , you know , tests that come up and like , it turns out that students in California aren't necessarily any different or any happier than the folks in the Midwest , but we assume that the environment matters a lot. And I think this is like a real insight. We often assume that environmental factors are affecting our happiness , but it turns out that these are the kinds of things that we get used to over time. Californians get used to the sunny weather. They used to kind of the fact that the beaches are so close and they start to take them for granted. And so the environment winds up affecting our happiness less than we assume. We assume it's a big effect , but it kind of doesn't affect us as much as we think. I think the one caveat to that is if you're living in environmental circumstances that are truly traumatic , right ? We're talking about the kind of small differences here , rather than some terrible environmental circumstances where you can't put food on your table or you're living in warfare or trauma or something like that. But by and large , for most of the folks listening right now , the environment is probably having less of an impact than we assume.

S1: You know , the people around us also play a big part in our mindsets.

S4: One very famous psychological study suggested that very happy people necessarily are very social people. So it's kind of in some sense required for you to be social if you want to have high happiness. And for example , there's lots of evidence that the happier people tend to be around other people more often , happier people tend to prioritize their friends and family members and their relationships. And there's lots of evidence , even , that if you kind of are feeling a little lonely , or if you spend a lot of time alone , just the act of hanging out with people more often , even things like talking to a stranger can significantly boost your happiness. And research by the University of Chicago psychologist Nick Epley shows that these benefits of social connection are true both for introverts and for extroverts. I think this is something that researchers found kind of surprising that introverts get as much happiness benefit from social connection as extroverts. But the data are pretty clear on this. We all seem to benefit when we connect with and have relationships with other people.

S1: Huh ? Interesting.

S4: I think partly is that we feel happier when we're talking with and connecting with other people. But there's also evidence for what researchers call emotional contagion that we can kind of catch the happiness of the people around us , too. Unfortunately , that also means we can catch other people's misery. But but the good news with that is that means that the contagiousness goes both ways. And so that means that we can seed positivity , optimism , and happiness in our relationships to sound good.

S1: Vibes are important , right ? I mean , can you learn happiness on your website ? It says your goal is to help teach others to live happier lives through science backed techniques.

S4: If you've been alone a lot , taking time to feel a little bit more grateful to get more presence. Another hack that we talk about is doing nice things for other people. Lots and lots of evidence that becoming a bit more other oriented doing for others is better than kind of being selfish when it comes to happiness. And these are all practices that are based on , like , you know , decades of research studies now where we just have really clear data that their behaviors we can engage in and mindsets we can move towards that just make us feel better. And this is one of the reasons I like to think about happiness as a learned skill. Right. As we learn what the science shows that we can do to feel better , we can engage with those practices more , and then we'll ultimately wind up improving our well-being. And what do. You.

S1: You. Thing keeps us from happiness.

S4: One is that all those behaviors and mindsets take work. You know , they don't necessarily come naturally to all of us , you know ? So if I'm having a really tough day at work and I plop home , you know , getting some social connection and might not be , you know , exactly the thing I was thinking of , I might not be motivated at that point to say , do something nice for somebody else or to reinterpret my day using gratitude. Right. Like the act of doing those things takes a little bit of work. But like all good things in life , when you put in the work , you wind up getting the benefits right. But I think a bigger problem is that we really kind of get happiness wrong. We don't think that , you know , something as simple as changing our mindset can make us feel better. We think we need bigger , radical changes to our circumstances. We need to change our job or get more money. And most of the time , those things aren't going to change our our happiness levels as much as we assume.

S1: And I want to make sure we're not conflating depression with just not being happy one day.

S4: Yeah , I think it's really important to to think about the degree of unhappiness that we're talking about. And I think the best analogy for this is when we think about our physical health , where we can tend to see these degrees more clearly. So , you know , if you walk into your doctor and you say , hey , doctor , I have high blood pressure , your doctor might say , oh , you should hop on the treadmill or , you know , eat a bit more fruit and vegetables. But if you walk into your doctor and you say , doctor , I'm having , you know , acute cardiac arrest right now , I'm having a heart attack. You know , in this very second , your doctor is not going to say , well , you know , hop on the treadmill and eat some fruits and vegetables. No , they're going to have like , an acute remedy for that. Right. You know , the acute needs of like acute problems in health are ones that require a different , special , more urgent solution. And I think the same is true for our mental health. Right. You know , if you're experiencing serious clinical depression , experiencing suicidal thoughts , you know , all these practices I'm talking about , that's not the acute remedy you need right in the moment. You might really need professional help , you know. But if you're just feeling a little bit unhappy , a little bit down in the dumps , feeling maybe a little depressed , the research really shows that the kinds of practices I teach in my course can be really important in improving that. But again , we have to kind of know where we are clinically. Are we really dealing with an acute mental health situation ? For that you need a different solution.

S5: And when we.

S1: Talk about mental health and depression , social media gets blamed for a lot. But the key to happiness can't be as simple as just deleting all the apps.

S4: You know , when you think about the practices we've talked about , you know , what matters for happiness , things like social connection. Well , that social connection in real life , you know , it's not scrolling through a Facebook or Instagram feed. And so I think that really the problem with social media is that it's really an opportunity cost on the other things we could be doing to achieve our happiness. And one of the strategies I like for social media comes from the journalist Catherine Price. She has this lovely book called How to Break Up with Your Phone , where she argues that we don't really need to break up with our phones , but we need to kind of take them to couples counseling. And she has this sort of acronym that she uses called w , w w , which stands for what for why now and what else ? So she suggests every time you hop on social media , even whenever you hop on your phone , you should ask those three questions. And I love this technique because it's not saying , hey , delete all your social media apps , never go on it , but it's allowing you to be a little bit more mindful of what you are getting out of being on social media and what the cost might be. Hmm.

S5: Hmm.

S1: Let me ask you , do you look at happiness as an emotion or as a state of being ? Yeah.

S4: Well , I think it's , you know , it's a little bit of both. I think our emotions do make up our happiness. When I think of the kind of happy emotions , I think of things like contentment and joy. But I think that happiness really is the way we can think about how our lives are going to.

S5: What helps you , what.


S4: You know , if I'm having a tough day , I really have to reach out and connect with a friend. Um , you know , moving my body is something. Exercise definitely doesn't come natural to me , but I know that it will really boost my mood. And sometimes I do it. You know , begrudgingly , like , uh , it's supposed to work. And then , oh , my gosh , I feel so much better. So yeah , I have to put all this stuff that I teach my students into practice myself. It's not easy for me , but I've seen firsthand that putting in the work really can change your happiness around.

S1: All right. I've been speaking with Laurie Santos , professor of psychology at Yale University and host of the podcast The Happiness Lab. Laurie , thank you so much for joining me. I appreciate you.

S4: Thanks so much for having you on the show.

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Assemblyman Anthony Rendon of Lakewood, center, pictured in 2016.
Rich Pedroncelli
Assemblyman Anthony Rendon of Lakewood, center, pictured in 2016.

Can we legislate our way to happiness? California Democratic Assemblymember Anthony Rendon thinks we can.

He’s created a first-in-the-nation group to study happiness. They'll release a report with their findings by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, the U.S. just dropped out of the world's top 20 happiest countries, according to the United Nations' World Happiness Report. We're now down to 23 — compared to last year's 15.

Wednesday on Midday Edition, it's all about happiness: How do you measure it? How do you maintain it? And, why does it matter?


  • Lara Aknin, co-editor of the World Happiness Report and professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in Canada
  • Laurie Santos, host of 'The Happiness Lab' podcast and professor of psychology at Yale University