Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Measuring Well-Being: A New Happines Index Aims to Quantify Your Inner Life

--body + mind + spirit--

Feeling happy today ? Loving life ? Well, according to researchers you are in good company - that is, if you see the glass half full versus half empty.

According to a new massive survey half of Americans are actually happy and fulfilled. The survey was conducted as an attempt to measure the nation's general welfare. The researchers behind the survey wanted to design an index much like the Dow Jones Average - except instead of portraying the health of the stock would portray the health of the "emotional market."

The Index actually has a name, "The Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index" and is based thus far on over 100,000 people. Researchers imagine that their findings, which can be broken down by occupation, commute time and exercise habits, will help employers better understand what they can do to create happier and healthier workers. Another application they suggest is that the data could even be used to compare health and happiness by ZIP code, creating a sort of "measuring stick" for future generations of politicians. So how does a study work that is meant to be used by everyone from employers to politician to hopefully make us happier ? What is the sophisticated technology behind this new index? Well, apparently its a bunch of questions.

Pollsters asked people to imagine where they would put themselves on a ladder with 10 steps. Those said they were on step seven or above are listed as thriving. Those at four or below are suffering. In between are the strugglers. I wonder about this study though...I mean ask any given person that you know really well how happy they are one day to the next, and for many the answer greatly varies. A squabble with a spouse, a teething infant up all night, an unreasonable employer, a shift in monthly hormones, really bad weather, or a particularly bad traffic jam can shift one's perception, if even for a short time - on the general state of their happiness. 100,000 people is a whole lot of people, but I wonder if they watched everything from how much caffeine, sugar and sleep they had, or inquired on the experience they had with their kids or lovers that morning.

Besides the questionable methodology and results of the study, I ask why do we need the study at all ? Our TV viewing habits are watched by Nielsen, our web surfing behavior is monitored by countless software, our subway riding patterns are monitored on our metro-cards, our purchasing behavior is monitored by our credit cards, and so on, and so on, and so on. But with all this data on what we do, when we do it, and how we do it - are business and political leaders actually able to provide us with a more efficient, easy or pleasant daily experience ? Some claim that this data mining is there to protect us, but from what? In all the years I have been monitored - what scare have I really evaded thanks to the data that I provided to the forces that be? I don't buy it. But I think someone else does. Information is a commodity - even if its true value only exists in perception.

One scientist, a Princeton University professor named Kahneman, commented on the new happiness index,

"You're getting details about what it's like to live in this country. What is the experience of the weekend? What is the experience of the weekday for someone who is sick and has to go to work in the morning? We are going to learn a great deal about what are the determinants of actual happiness."

Great, I say - and then what? Happiness is not something delivered like an egg roll to your front door. It's a daily and even momentary pursuit. Nothing that industry will try to sell you will bring you happiness, and no policy no matter how much it will improve that standing of your life will guarantee happiness either. There are happy and sad sick, healthy, rich, poor, fat, thin etc etc people. It's not what they have in their life that defines their happiness - its how they define what they have in their life that defines their happiness.

Index or no index, happiness is up to you - to define, to cultivate and ultimately to measure for yourself.

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