Do happiness measurements mean anything?

A study of people with locked-in syndrome suggests not; the vast majority of those surveyed reported being happy.

If a terminal condition that permanently keeps you from moving anything but your eyes can’t make you unhappy, I doubt we’re measuring anything of importance. What if we do believe these measurements are accurate reflections of happiness? Then things are more problematic: this is a worst-case scenario of the Hedonic Treadmill, and happiness isn’t the measure of well-being we should be targeting.

To put it bluntly, if people are just as happy after developing locked-in syndrome as they were without it, should we stop treating or trying to prevent it?


About Jason Kerwin
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2 Responses to Do happiness measurements mean anything?

  1. schwartz1983 says:

    I was also a bit skeptical when I read about this study, given the extremeness of the condition. However, research has shown many times that people who suffer extreme physical disability tend score their happiness/quality of life much higher than when healthy people are asked to predict what their happiness/quality of life would be if they suffered the same fate.

    There’s a probably a recalibration of happiness that occurs in some people who develop disabilities. And I’m not sure I’m quite ready to accept the data about locked-in syndrome. But at the same time, it’s useful to remember that these conditions don’t always mean death and depression.

  2. Nitin Sekar says:

    I disagree– I think happiness is still the most thing for us to measure. Maybe it’s too complex for us to understand at this point, and maybe our methods are flawed in such a way that makes happiness measures inappropriate for policy applications now. But if the ultimate goal of public health (or development in general) isn’t to make it easier for people to be happy, then what is it? If you didn’t believe lower infant mortality and reduced morbidity due to malaria made people happier, would you still work so hard to achieve them?

    A couple of ideas on how to make sense of the locked-in syndrome study. First, these aspects of the study are tremendous: “The researchers acknowledged the results may be biased since the study was based on a select group and might not apply to locked-in patients in general. Patients also answered the survey with a caregiver or family member present, which may have influenced answers.” I would probably say I was happy just to keep the caregiver happy. Let’s not dismiss all happiness metrics based on such a circumstance-constrained study.

    Second, one should take into account the happiness of the family members, as well. Even if the brain-damaged patient hasn’t experienced a reduction in happiness, I’m sure most family members would say they’d be happier if their relative were cured. That’s a reason to continue to try to prevent and treat the condition.

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