People are fascinated by the idea of happiness. Therefore they want to measure it. In his PhD on the subject, which he will defend 26 October, Willem van den Deijl concludes: It is really difficult, even impossible, to measure wellbeing or happiness.
What has been your starting point?
‘A lot of research has been done on wellbeing and happiness. And indeed it would be nice if we could know how happy or content people really are and which aspects play a roll. But I found that it’s really difficult to measure wellbeing. In some video someone says: “It should be obvious that people are happier nowadays than in the Middle Ages because we live much longer.” But actually we don’t know if this assumption is true. This, I would argue, generalizes too many questions we can ask about happiness.’
Why is it difficult to measure wellbeing?
‘Because a researcher cannot access someone’s experience. Researchers assume that people know how happy they are, but maybe they don’t know. Sometimes somebody seems unhappy because he didn’t achieve certain things, but ten years later he might look back to say it was a happy period in his life. Existing measures of happiness don’t take this into account.’
So we should stop all happiness research?
‘No. It’s important to find out. An example: our income doubled in the past forty years, but are we much more happy now than forty years ago? It’s important to investigate that, because if more wealth doesn’t make us more satisfied, it doesn’t make sense to strive for it. Another example: having children. People say kids makes them happy, and it is fulfilling in a way. However, in research the opposite shows. I just don’t think we should expect a conclusive answer to this question from science. And I’m pessimistic about methods of measurement’
The Dutch city of Schagen recently appointed an alderman of happiness and a project leader of happiness. What do you think of this?
‘I read it and thought it funny. A famous quote of the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte is: “The government is not a happiness machine.” However, a lot of public interventions in one way or another are based on the question how life can be made more comfortable for citizens.’
What are you going to do next?
‘I’m going to Canada next week for a postdoc on the relation between wellbeing and politics.’