Science Reveals the Best Measure of Wellbeing

Happiness tells us how well a society satisfies the major concerns of people’s everyday life.

grandfailure/Adobe Stock

For centuries, happiness was exclusively a concern of the humanities; a matter for philosophers, novelists and artists. In the past five decades, however, it has moved into the domain of science and given us a substantial body of research. This wellspring of knowledge now offers us an enticing opportunity: to consider happiness as the leading measure of societal wellbeing, supplanting the current favorite, real gross domestic product per capita, or GDP.

In the social sciences, data on individuals’ happiness are obtained from nationally representative surveys in which a question such as the following is asked:

Taken all together, how would you say things are these days, would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?

There are many variants of this question. Instead of happiness, the question may be about your overall satisfaction with life, you might be asked to place yourself on a “ladder of life”, running from the best possible to the worst. The common objective is to deliver an evaluation of a person’s life at the time of the survey. We can use the term “happiness” as a convenient proxy for this set of measures.