Are "Happiness Studies" Bogus?

The happiest age is 23. The happiest age is 85. Money can buy happiness. Money does not affect happiness. Using the Internet makes you happy. Using the Internet makes you sad. Too much happiness can make you unhappy. (What now?)

It’s not surprising that “happiness researchers” have reached such conflicting conclusions when the very foundation of their field is so tenuous. No philosopher, psychologist, or new-age guru has conclusively defined, let alone quantified, the very subjective concept of happiness.

Not that that stops journalists from uncritically reporting the results of “happiness studies” as though they were uncontroversial facts. One of the most popular courses at Harvard is called “Positive Psychology.” Even policy makers have bought into the hype: the “wellbeing index”, most recently endorsed by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, is being touted as a better measure than GDP in evaluating the health and happiness of a population.

The trend of comparing happiness levels is tenuous at best and dangerous at worst. Take the example of France. France ranks lower than Iraq or Afghanistan on the wellbeing index, in spite of a higher standard of living in nearly every observable measure — access to health care, education, amenities, gender equality, chance of not getting blown up upon stepping foot outside. So should France scrap national health care and install more land mines? Obviously not — and there must be something very wrong with a scale that would even make that question plausible.

I’m always going to be skeptical of any study claiming to quantify “happiness” — but even apart from the methodological problems with treating self-reported happiness levels like scientific data, we can’t assume that happiness can or should be pursued. Some researchers have even found that deliberately pursuing happiness as a goal can backfire and leave the would-be optimist feeling worse —making the whole exercise seem kind of pointless. I agree with George Bernard Shaw: “The only way to avoid being miserable is not to have enough leisure to wonder whether you’re happy or not.” Happiness researchers must be a pretty miserable bunch.