How Measuring Misery and Happiness can Alter Policy

When it comes to emotion, most people don’t deal in shades of gray. We’re either happy, miserable or (in some cases) embedded with enough pharmacology to render us aloof and indifferent. But in a world constantly in pursuit of a self-help quick-fix, what if we could statistically measure levels of misery and happiness? And how would they affect the way the world operates? And perhaps most importantly, how are you feeling today? You good?

Economists have been toying with these kinds of measurables for decades, ever since Arthur Okun devised the misery index in the 1960s. Based on the levels of unemployment and inflation, the misery index was a solid indicator as to how dire an economy we were facing. But in a troubling economic time not really marked by inflation, analysts are proposing a new misery index based more on fiscal deficit as a percentage of overall GDP. But while economists first learned that sad people were not good for business, an array of other experts are tapping into what makes us happy and why.

Frustrated by the vagueness of terms like happiness, scientists have now devised an actual happiness formula marked by neurological measurements of pleasure and pain. Scientists at UVM have even created a “Hedonometer.” Using these formulas, scientists are devising a tangible happiness scale through which we can measure how happy a person is. From there, we’ve confirmed what most happy people assumed was common knowledge. Like how happy people live longer and have closer, more profound relationships.

While economists, psychologists, and neurologists have gone about measuring happiness in different ways, the end result has us on the cusp of properly measuring and categorizing levels in happiness in people. Even lawyers have had their say in the benefits of measuring happiness. In a fascinating story published last May,’s Drake Bennett referenced a 2008 law review article in which Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein (now a member of President Obama’s cabinet) stated that plaintiffs in personal injury cases were being overcompensated because judges were unable to gauge their relative levels of misery living as a disabled person. This despite mounting evidence that living with mental illness or chronic pain was measurably more difficult.

So can making happiness and misery a measurable variable contribute to public policy? It certainly hasn’t yet, but it’s a concept that has gathered some steam, with a number of organizations and academics floating the concept. But with even the likes of Michael J Fox looking to study the source of optimism, there might be a code out there waiting to be cracked. But the application of that code remains to be seen. You feel better now?

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