The Problem with Happiness Research

Talking of happiness, University of California philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel discusses the problem with the self-reporting of happiness for research purposes.

If the intervention is obviously intended to increase happiness, participants may well report more happiness post-intervention simply to conform to their own expectations, or because they endorse a theory on which the intervention should increase happiness, or because they’ve invested time in the intervention procedure and they’d prefer not to think of their time as wasted, or for any of a number of other reasons. Participants might think something like, “I reported a happiness level of 3 before, and now that I’ve done this intervention I should report 4” — not necessarily in so many words.

[…] The vast majority of the U.S. population describe themselves as happy (despite our high rate of depression and anger problems), and self-reports of happiness are probably driven less by accurate perception of one’s level of happiness than by factors like the need to see and to portray oneself as a happy person (otherwise, isn’t one something of a failure?). My own background assumption […] is that those reports are driven primarily by the need to perceive oneself a certain way, by image management, by contextual factors, by one’s own theories of happiness, and by pressure to conform to perceived experimenter expectations.

Of course, reactivity isn’t a problem exclusively linked with this type of research, but it’s worth reiterating.

via Mind Hacks



One response to “The Problem with Happiness Research”

  1. The big problems with measuring happiness are that it’s got a big variance in its time profile, and happiness doesn’t have tightly associated behaviors, so you’ve got to rely on self reports.. Unlike aggressive behavior, say, which is pretty distinct, happiness is harder to measure behaviorally.