Are people happy? It’s difficult to know even whether they think they are. Certainly, people are disgruntled lately. According to explosive new data from the General Social Survey, 24 percent of Americans say they’re not too happy, and only 19 percent say they are very happy. A lot of that disgruntlement is about COVID.
But consider. The Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness reported that in 2017, low numbers of people called themselves “happy” (33 percent). But in 2020, the Gallup Poll reported that very high numbers said they were “satisfied with their personal life” (about 90 percent). People didn’t suddenly become happier during those three years; the Gallup percentage was almost as high in 2017 as in 2020. The difference was due to how the question was asked.
As I explain in my new book “How and How Not to Be Happy,” it really is possible to study happiness—but we aren’t going to learn much from such numbers. People answer differently if you ask whether they are happy or whether they are happy “about” things. They answer differently if you ask whether they’re happy or whether they’re “satisfied.” They answer differently if you ask whether they’re having a “good time” or whether they’re having a “good life.” A hundred minor differences in wording stir mud into the water.
It’s difficult even to know how we’re feeling. All day Tuesday, Mr. Jones snaps at everyone around him, yet he may be the last to know he’s in a grouchy mood. “I’m fine! Leave me alone! Stop badgering me!”
Knowing whether we’re happy or unhappy is even harder. A young husband and wife may be so absorbed in caring for their family that it never occurs to them that they’re happy, yet years later they smile and realize that they were. If things “seem to be going all right” and I’m surrounded by the accoutrements of what my friends all call success, then when I am asked, “Are you happy?” I may answer, “Yeah, I guess so,” yet I may not be happy at all.
The 19th-century economist F.Y. Edgeworth believed that someday we would have instruments to measure happiness just as we have instruments to measure temperature. Today, I suppose we would measure the electrical activity in the pleasure center of the brain.
“Mr. Jones, the readout shows that you are experiencing only 5.6 units of bliss. Are you feeling a bit off today?”
But is pleasure the same as happiness? Most who have thought seriously about the matter think not. Among other things, happiness doesn’t get old; pleasure does.
My own suspicion is that although most people have some share in happiness, not many are simply happy. But the only instrument by which we can measure happiness, or study what it is, is the instrument of thoughtful conversation. Does that mean just asking everyone “What makes you happy?” and crunching numbers with the answers? No.
Why not? After all, most people must know something about happiness. Since we humans have inside knowledge of our minds, it would be impossible not to. Since outside of the most mindless fantasies, there are no such things as happiness thermometers, we could never find out more about happiness if people didn’t already know something about it. Where else but there could we start?
So it makes sense to begin with common opinion. But it doesn’t make sense to end with it. People may know a lot about happiness, but they don’t always know what it is that they know—and they may not always want to! Common opinion has to be interrogated—and surprisingly, it has to be interrogated by other common opinion. This has been called “connecting the dots” and “assembling reminders.”
Socrates was once confronted with the common opinion that happiness depends on having enormous desires, plus enormous means to satisfy them. One might think that to refute this mistake, he would have to go outside common opinion. Instead, he appealed to it himself. For, in that case, nothing would be happier than constant, fierce itching and constant, fierce scratching—and can’t we all see that this is false?
Making common opinion about happiness cross-examine other common opinion about happiness is the most powerful method for understanding the happiness that we have. It also happens to be the method of classical philosophy, refined over centuries, even though in our time thought unscientific.
No shortcut can be found in happiness surveys; no detour in brain scans; no substitute in Twitter, astrology, or news of the rich and famous. This is what we’ve got. We may as well use it.