Now, an answer may be forthcoming. Amid a wave of research on the subject, the federal government is seeking ways to measure what some have called gross national happiness.
Funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, a panel of experts in psychology and economics, including Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, began convening in December to try to define reliable measures of “subjective well-being.” If successful, these could become official statistics.
The idea of the government tallying personal feelings might seem frivolous — or impossibly difficult. For decades, after all, the world has gotten by with gauging a nation’s quality of life on the basis of its gross domestic product, the sum of its economic output.
But economists and others have long recognized that GDP, a dollars-and-cents measure, doesn’t count everything that might be considered important when assessing living conditions.
“Our gross national product, if we should judge America by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. … It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile,” Robert Kennedy said in a 1968 speech.
But as the United States ventures into the squishy realm of feelings, statisticians will first have to define happiness and then how to measure it. Neither is a trivial matter.
There is even some doubt whether people, when polled, can accurately say whether they are happy.
“I’m worried about the word ‘happiness,’ ” Kahneman, an author and economist, said during a break in a meeting last week.
Whatever the obstacles, the effort has momentum. President Barack Obama has “welcomed” the effort, according to a White House release, and his chief economic adviser, Alan Krueger, is one of the leading researchers in the field.