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Ziska Childs

Freelancer, united scenic artists

TEDCRED 200+

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What is the measure of happiness?

Can we judge the success or failure of a Government by the "happiness quotient" of it's citizens?

If we use a happiness instead of money to judge the relative success of our societies how do we measure happiness?

We are awash with statistics on birth, death, health and wealth. We relate these numbers to happiness; but are these the right things to measure when we try and define happiness? Is using things like health and wealth (both easily quantifiable) a valid way to measure something which is so subjective?

Does a low suicide rate indicate a high happiness rate? Does a low addiction rate indicate a high happiness rate?

What is a true measure of happiness?

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    Oct 17 2013: "Happiness" can never be an indicator to judge how well a society is doing. A population might be absolutely happy and content because they are oblivious of the environmental impact their "economic growth" is having or they might just be happy because they don't care. "Happiness" is restricted by our consciousness. It also depends on what I value more in life. A person who values money more will be happy with more money and a person who values family will be happy when he does something to make the family more united. Happiness also depends on experience and upbringing. Happiness is very subjective and also a constantly changing variable.
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      Oct 22 2013: Hi Shahzad,

      Curiously enough, money isn't a guarantee of happiness. There is a point beyond a promise of shelter and security where the greater accumulation of money does not equal happiness (or comfort, or acceptance, or satisfaction) and just like any addictive process the search for a "bigger high" becomes obsessive.
  • Oct 17 2013: Seems to me that the more useful we are, the happier we are. Just having a lot and being very wealthy is no guaranty toward happiness. Millionaires have committed suicide.

    I also think that happiness is not measurable because it is a side-effect. The pursuit of happiness does not make anyone happier, but easier frustrated.
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    Oct 15 2013: Here's one attempt:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/02/happiest-states-_n_3696160.html

    Hans Rosling used infant mortality as a measure of prosperity surely we can think of something which is a measure of happiness.
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    Oct 15 2013: ..

    Happiness is the short-time feeling of things being a-step-better for keeping our DNA alive.
    The size of the "step" does not matter much.
    So, the "measure" of happiness does not matter much, either.
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      Oct 15 2013: Isn't there a tipping point?
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        Oct 17 2013: .

        Sorry!
        I do not know there is.

        Is it at its starting point?
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          Oct 17 2013: In Darwinian terms there is always a tipping point toward survival or extinction.

          Genetic predisposition is a starting point - the results of evolution. Happiness is dependent on many things: shelter, food, safety- all Darwinian motivators. These can also be measured and are measured by many governments. More elusive motivators but equally key to species survival are Community, Natural Beauty (Nic Marks), and Meditation (Matthieu Ricard).
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    Oct 22 2013: Measuring Happiness will always bring out different outcomes. So I don't measure happiness, I try to remain same in good or bad days (believe me it is very difficult to maintain). I don't relate my happiness or sadness to anything as I don't have control on them.

    Believe me one can laugh, enjoy in any situation without being fake.

    Just live the Moment.
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    Oct 22 2013: I would like to expand a little one point I mentioned in my first comment a day ago.

    It's about measuring something. Suppose we want to measure richness. So we measure how much money and property has one got. But then what ?? Does it satisfy the measurer ?? If the measurer finds oneself to be less rich, this might create envy in his mind to find out that somebody is richer. Does measuring richness gets the measurer richer ?? Obviously not. Now suppose the measurer finds oneself to be richer than the measured one. This might give him//her some good feeling, it may make him proud to find out he is richer. But this good feeling would last just temporarily. Once one gets used to the fact he//she is richer, or is even the richest in the country, this persisting knowledge stops making one excited about this.

    So it's the same with whatever we measure, including happiness. Even if you find a perfect measurement for happiness, you will become happy temporarily and the media would celebrate your achievement and you would get even richer, etc. If you find some scientific measure for happiness like some chemical or gene or whatever, again the scientific community, your close friends, the media, etc would celebrate your achievement. But all this is not equal at all to finding happiness or feeling it from inside. There's actually no relationship whatsoever between measuring happiness and finding it.
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      Oct 22 2013: Hi Yubal

      Heisenberg happiness? (sorry couldn't help myself) It is absolutely true that we judge ourselves in relation to others. It's part of the human condition. The constant comparison can be motivational- or stultifying- and each may be an advantage given the situation.

      There would not be pessimists and unhappy people amongst us if it were not something which has been rewarded in an evolutionary sense. It is the striving which and the success or failure which modifies each of us into the next generation- both in genetics and in culture (culture=a speedier evolutionary process than genetics)

      No, measuring happiness will not increase it- it may help us understand it. Isn't self awareness one of the ways to achieve "feeling it from the inside"?
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    Oct 21 2013: Hi Ziska,

    There is a word "happiness" that seems to only have correlation to neurotransmitters and neuropeptides including serotonin, oxytocin, endorphin and dopamine .. there might be others, but the list is growing all the time.
    There is another measure that makes the word "happiness" a reciprocal of gluco-corticoid levels.

    In common usage, the word "happiness" has next to no value whatsoever - and any attempt to measure it will be equally as meaningless.

    One thing seems for sure - any attempt to pursue a meaningless word might result in finding it - i.e. the lack of meaning.

    You might get some better results looking at the words "pleasure" and "comfort" - they are also lacking a lot of value, but are less amorphous.
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      Oct 22 2013: HI Mitch,

      neurotransmitters and neuropeptides

      Cool- under what circumstances do those get wiggly? Let's try the definition from the other end...
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        Oct 22 2013: The best "other end" analysis I've seen is the "stress hormone" levels - cortisol.
        Sapolsky is good in this regard (he's not the only one doing work, but he's the most accessible - I feel like a broken-record promoting him all the time - apologies for that).

        The other broken record I play is Damasio - shows that there are narrow margins of internal energy-states that measure a complex gestalt called "comfort" - when the energy state falls outside of this we have discomfort because it will lead to sickness and death.

        The problem with all these things is that they are complex systems - no single aspect is causal .. and it says little of the open nature of the whole system that we call "self".
        Another problem is the lack of limits - the motion towards comfort seems to be unconstrained, and yet there is evidence of constraint that operates outside the subjective self.

        I conjecture that our innate capacity for empathy actually establishes other selves within our empathetic range - simply by modelling what "others" are doing and feeling, we harbour a fragment of them within us.
        Under that conjecture, the general feeling of happiness has an aggregation from all those we host through empathy - and that's a completely different way of looking at this thing called "happiness".
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    Oct 21 2013: By wanting to measure it, you turn happiness into one more scientific branch. In order to understand happiness or to achieve it, you do not have to know how to measure it. Indeed as you imply, lack of happiness is an indication for the failure of our society.

    But being obsessive for measuring happiness, like for anything else (money, power, spirituality, etc), is a sure path for dissatisfaction.

    IMO, the best way to understand happiness is to inquire it from inside and not to measure it from outside. Actually, in order to understand happiness, one needs first of all to embrace his misery too, not to run away of it. Then one needs to inquire his//her misery, what are its most fundamental roots, its genuine reasons.

    Happiness is not the goal. It's just a high-class and marvelous by-product of certain way//direction//goal//principles of life. I have written about this in more detail in my doubled comment on another conversation about similar topic:
    http://www.ted.com/conversations/768/is_happiness_an_emergent_prope.html?c=204858
    http://www.ted.com/conversations/768/is_happiness_an_emergent_prope.html?c=204859
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    Oct 21 2013: .

    It will be easy to measure if
    the interfering factor of invalid (harmful) happiness is removed.
  • Oct 19 2013: (From wiki for happiness) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness

    "Several scales have been used to measure happiness:

    The Subjective Happiness Scale (SHS) is a four-item scale, measuring global subjective happiness. The scale requires participants to use absolute ratings to characterize themselves as happy or unhappy individuals, as well as it asks to what extent they identify themselves with descriptions of happy and unhappy individuals.

    The Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) is used to detect the relation between personality traits and positive or negative affects at this moment, today, the past few days, the past week, the past few weeks, the past year, and generally (on average). PANAS is a 20-item questionnaire, which uses a five-point Likert scale (1 = very slightly or not at all, 5 = extremely).

    The Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS) is a global cognitive assessment of life satisfaction. The SWLS requires a person to use a seven-item scale to state their agreement or disagreement (1 = strongly disagree, 4 = neither agree nor disagree, 7 = strongly agree) with five statements about their life."

    My feelings on subject:

    Happiness is a subjective term and can only be defined and measured by the individual. Part of being able to measure it has to come from the magnitude of your highest high and lowest low. Part of being able to measure it has to come from the amount of time spent in good times and in bad. Part of it has to come from your feelings about yourself, other people, and your environment. Part of it has to come from your ability to live in harmony with nature. Part of it has to do with your perceived ability to control the course of your life, and perhaps help loved ones and friends with their lives.

    Relative to high rate of suicides in your area, artists and highly successful people are often very demanding of themselves and stressed from drive.

    From your description of you community, your sample may be skewed.
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    Oct 18 2013: .
    (To Ziska Childs' comment (9 hours ago below))

    Yes!

    Having any of "shelter, food, safety- all Darwinian motivators" ,and "Community, Natural Beauty (Nic Marks), and Meditation (Matthieu Ricard)" is A-STEP-BETTER FOR KEEPING OUR DNA ALIVE.

    Its measurability depends merely on its starting point rather than quantity (Dan Gilbert).

    Thanks!
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      Oct 18 2013: Is your single step equal to infinite steps?
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        Oct 19 2013: .

        Thanks!

        A single "step" makes merely a "SHORT-TIME feeling" happy.
        "Infinite steps" do infinite happiness.

        So, the "measure" of happiness is
        mainly the number of steps times "shot-time"
        rather than the size of step.

        Wrong?
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    Oct 16 2013: Indifference to it. The less you worry about happiness, happier are you.
  • Da Way

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    Oct 15 2013: It can only ever be an estimate because it is so subjective as others have stated, but if you were to quantify objectively the best estimatation of happiness levels, the equation would, i imagine, look something like this:

    ( Happiness x duration ) - ( unhappiness x duration).

    and the measurements we can take so far that correlates to 'happiness' level are: hormone levels, their corresponding receptors, and the areas of positive emotions that light up on fMRI scans, all of which can be quantified. So I imagine if you had to do it (it'll be expensive and thus not realistic to do population studies), you can actually get a pretty fair measurement of overall happiness.
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      Oct 15 2013: According to the documentary "Happy" there are genetic factors to our happiness "mean" (were you born happy?) and environmental factors (food, shelter) but after that about 40% of our happiness is up to our lifestyle.

      We know things which make us happy, both in the short term (sensory stimulation- like drugs and sex) and in the long term (like nature, compassion and community).

      The question I would like to explore is actually 2 fold. Is there a way to structure a government (community) to make the happiness of it's citizens the primary objective and is there a way to know if it's working?
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        Oct 17 2013: I am sure I have read in the last year of a country that has put exactly that agenda forward as the national goal. I seem to remember it as somewhere in Asia.

        I will try to find the reference. Bhutan, maybe? http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com/ and http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/bhutan_crossroads
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          Oct 18 2013: Yes, it (or was) Bhutan. The policy is being challenged.
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          Oct 22 2013: Yes, Fritzie.... Bhutan is far ahead in understanding happiness.

          Gross National Happiness (GNH) measures the quality of a
          country in more holistic way [than GNP] and believe the beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occurs side by side to complement and reinforce each other'.

          Can you imagine congress having such a conversation?
          Why not? How has our wealth created so much greed at the same time? Any clues?
      • Da Way

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        Oct 17 2013: of course there are genetic factors for happiness, there are too many factors! hence why it's pointless measuring the factors, and hence why i suggested measuring the outcome/physiological response. Hormone levels and brain imaging may not be perfect, but it's our closest tools so far.

        I agree with Shahzad above that happiness is not a good measure for how well a society is doing. You can have scenarios where you have a population of drug induced people who are content but not very productive, or even a population of happy schizophrenics who are full of joy.
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    Oct 15 2013: The measure is subjective and therefore only collectable in groups of people in public-opinion polls.

    In societies, suicide and addiction rates are indicators of the health of their social fabrics yet if we relate them to happiness, things get difficult, as many drugs induce happiness and sadness is no guarantee for suicide.

    Yes as social beings that we are, the health of the social fabric around us is highly influential on our individual happiness.

    In my understanding, the knowledge of the overall tendencies and trends in 'happiness' and 'contentment' within a nation are as important, or even more important, than the annual GDP this nations produces. On the long run, one influences the other.
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      Oct 15 2013: Is despair the opposite of happiness? Are the "happiest" places also the saddest?

      My local community rates as one of the happiest and it also has one of the highest suicide rates.
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        Oct 16 2013: That is interesting and appears contradictory to me. How homogeneous is your local community?

        Personally I consider 'happiness' a very volatile state of mind, like a sparkler, whereas contentment - in good condition - act more like red glowing embers in the fire place.

        The question remains if those who committed suicide in your local community also considered themselves happy in public-opinion polls.
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          Oct 16 2013: It does seem counter intuitive doesn't it? We share this trait with Switzerland and Austria that I know of. Perhaps it has to do with balance. A state of constant happiness is unsustainable.

          I feel I may have confused the issue a bit by using such a broad term as "happiness" I did not mean to imply euphoria or bliss- but less misery. I keep going back to the "Happy" documentary. Our genetics and basic survival influence our level of happiness but after reaching that "tipping point" the roads to happiness become less obvious. To reach "contentment" - or more happy times than unhappy times- seems to be routed in factors like Community, Flow and Natural surroundings.

          We still rely and "self polling" to determine "happiness" which certainly isn't a scientific method. The method outlined in the Huff post article is more revelatory in that it takes out the influence of the question/questioner but it's still out of context. So perhaps a better way of phrasing this would be "What are the symptoms of happiness?" symptoms which we can quantify?

          To get back to your first question of a diverse society. Yes and No. The town is white and rich- very rich. We rank high in athleticism (low obesity) and Community involvement (huge # of non-profits and high average voter turnout), our population is aged (over 55), for a small town we have an exceptionally large number of Arts organizations, ours is primarily a service industry so our visitor population (100 visitors to each resident in high season) is international and diverse, our addiction rate is very high, our homeless rate is about 1 per 100, our suicide rate is about 1 in 1000.

          There is no cross referencing I know of to answer your second question. I can only say all I knew seemed happy at times and unhappy at others (which could describe all of us) but I am not a mental health professional.
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        Oct 17 2013: Now its even more counter intuitive than it was before.

        I assume, that 'the town is white' means, that the overall majority of its citizen is Caucasian? This could have some influence on the numbers, as I noticed some differences regarding the 'joie de vivre' between different skin pigmentations, which relates to cultural differences exclusively.

        Yet as the town is rich, even very rich, as you said, is there a correlation between suicide rates and certain events within the financial sector, like the financial crisis or falling stock markets?

        Some years ago a German industrialist killed himself when his company went bankrupt, even though his private assets would have allowed him a normal lifestyle to the end of his days. Which makes even the 'tipping point' to become a variable for some.

        But I am no specialist either in non of the fields we are talking about here, which makes me more guessing than knowing.

        Some years ago a service was provided by my company, where people could have their cardiac functions checked if they were interested. Which I was, so I went. What I didn't know at that time was, how advanced the technology had become over the years. I expected a usual pressure test and some listening to my heart by the doctor, yet instead I got some electrodes attached to me which were connected to a certain software. After a short while of data collection and small talk, the doctor looked at me quite seriously and said, that, whatever it was I was going through, I should seriously reconsider my course of life, as this software had isolated a certain kind of stress-pattern in my heart rhythm, which was on alarming levels and thereby destructive in its nature.

        This sort of prophecy I would have expected from a fortune teller, not from a physician, yet my expectation was wrong, because he was right, as I went through very difficult days at that time in my private life.

        I was in a very unhappy state and he, without knowing me, could read my numbers ...
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        Oct 17 2013: And this was 'just' a cardiac reading, so I am certain, that there are more indicators within our biochemistry which we could use to eliminate any subjective estimate about how we are feeling for ourselves and how 'happy' we are compared to others. Maybe there is no general point of reference for all readings and for all people, yet if we would keep track of individual tendencies for a large number of people, this would probably deliver an more accurate, overall trend in our society.

        Writing this, it is actually pretty interesting that there are no such investigations in place today, yet for any stock-market on this planet we have in-situ and real-time statistics... maybe a hint regarding our current priorities ... :o)

        The first time I stumbled across the idea of a 'Gross national happiness index' was an article about Bhutan and what was even more surprising to me was the fact, that I never ever thought of it before.

        Such basic, beautiful idea, and I didn't have it, not even close.

        Years later this idea became popular in European policy and since then we have at least some ranking lists although it does not seem to be a factor of any more importance than that. Unfortunately, because we keep ignoring pretty important and truly democratic information here! Or maybe we don't? What would happen if scientists would find out, that certain dictatorships produce more happiness among the people? Would this information be held confidential? Who knows, who knows ... :o)

        The population age over 55 you mentioned seems pretty high to me and it marks the end of the usual period of midlife-crisis which ranges from 45 to 55. So depending on the shape of the age-distribution in your town, higher suicide rates may resonate when a thickening was within this 'crisis range'.

        I once lived in a small but famous artist village in Germany for a while, because of its beauty, yet I highly underestimated the stress level which came with tourism.
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        Oct 17 2013: Only during wintertime and in the middle of the week, the 'external population' was reduced to acceptable levels. At the weekends, my partner and I had to flee the masses and the village if we wanted to have a coffee or a meal at some quiet place. As pretty and picturesque it was, we didn't leave the place with any wrench and I would never choose for any similar place ever again.

        I don't mind other people, yet not on conveyor belts ... :o)

        If it is was as drastically at your place as I experienced it there, this could certainly have a negative impact on someone suffering from a personal crisis, which often makes them seek for more quiet places to sort things out.

        Just some thoughts ...
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          Oct 18 2013: Quiet is important.

          Everything you mention is a factor, and more.

          The proximity to great wealth can be depressing if you compare your "success" to others. The stress of a seasonal and service based economy cannot be denied (not to confuse the service industry with a life of service). A small town always has its' political drama. Depression does not discriminate. We are a microcosm of paradox.

          What I have noticed is that (as a friend of mine observed) "A lot of broken people come here. " finding that the change in venue, the natural beauty, the opportunities, the "new beginning" has not changed how they feel and they despair. Many of us carry our problems with us where ever we go. That is a very difficult lesson.

          The mental health industry is always looking for a more reliable way to diagnose depression. (Given the US propensity for firearms and our idealization of the individual over the community a better way of spotting the next school shooter might be a good thing, but I'm wandering off track) Our exploration of "unhappiness" is far reaching. It seems easier to know when someone is ill vs. when they are well.
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    Oct 15 2013: we can measuring the happiness from the EQ (emotional quotient) but it can't judged the seccess of any gouvernment ,cause it can exist success gouvrnment and the citizens are very sad but your idea is beautiful to be using by the goal of the society to satisfied the citizens.