Quantifying Happiness?

Over the holidays I spent a weekend vacationing in San Francisco with my lovely wife. We had a great time eating and drinking our way around the City by the Bay. I brought back a wonderful souvenir: a tin of excellent coffee beans from one of the many cafes I wandered in to that weekend.

I truly enjoyed the coffee, the simple presentation of the beans in the tin, and the memories of the great breakfast we had at their cafe. (Food/drink is always my favorite souvenir). I enjoyed it so much, I made this silly "graph" charting my happiness as I opened and sampled the coffee a few days before Xmas.
This raised a question in my mind that I invite you, dear reader, to comment on!
Can we really quantify happiness?

In other words, could we actually measure the enjoyment of something as simple as a cup of coffee in real time?

I know research has been done on quantifying pain, and the state of happiness does release lots of unique chemicals into the brain. But happiness is a complex and often subtle emotion. In what way does elation differ from stoic satisfaction?

Of course, I'm not the only one considering such questions. Given how important happiness (and its many variants) is to quality of life, health, stress, and consumerism, I'd imagine it's an important area of research.

It is also a topic of frequent pseudo-charts, like mine above. Here are a few from PhD comics to amuse: Work output vs time, Vacation vs stress, Motivation level vs time. My first officemate in gradschool also once drew "Happiness vs Time in Gradschool". It was an illuminating, albeit somewhat depressing, visualization.

I invite your thoughts, links to relevant literature, or links to other good pseudo-charts on the subject in the comments below


  1. Great blog! I'm a long time lurker, also in Seattle...

    Just wondering, you've never talked about what you use for visualizations. Are you an R man, python, D3, Tableau, MatLab?

    1. Hi Joe, thanks for reading! How 'bout them Seahawks?!

      Since I come from an Astronomy background, I've been raised in a culture of... not always the best/most modern computing practices (though lots of my friends/mentors/colleagues are actively trying to change this!). I'm an expert user of IDL (a very powerful/robust analysis and visualization language, and poo on anyone who will tell you otherwise), and lots of my visualization comes from that. It's not widely used outside of the physical sciences since it's expensive, and as a result I'm slowly using R and Python more.

      The pseudo-chart above was created in PowerPoint, which is still one of the most simple/effective drawing programs available.

      I expect to fully transition to R and Python in the next year or two, but for now I'm getting work done. One of my New Years Resolutions is to focus on questions, not tools, which is the topic of a possible forthcoming blog post. =)

    2. Who'duv thunk the Hawks would get this far?!
      My field is embedded systems but I've found myself following you Astronomers at UW.

      I agree with your de-emphasis on tools, it's about getting the job done. I've seen the same de-emphasis in my company's engineering views on process. "Don't get stuck in the process, focus on the results."

      However, as I've evolved in data analysis and visualization I've found myself getting bogged down in the tools. SO I'm focusing the next couple months on improving my R/Python skills.

      I look forward to your next post.

  2. Happiness as a study is one of the most interesting topics to me. One of my favorite books, The Geography of Bliss" by Eric Weiner, discusses the importance of understanding the individual (as a single human or as a single culture) rather than humans as a whole to best understand the why's and how's of happiness. The idea of quantifying such a phenomena is baffling to me unless you look at it from a hormonal/biological perspective. But it seems that happiness is best quantified in relative/comparative terms, rather than through specific numbers. Who's to say what '0' means on scale of happiness? This is a nice chart, and one I can definitely relate to! [pours another mug of coffee]

    *apologies for the lack of order to the above

  3. Jim,
    Happiness like pain is a very subjective experience, and yet we can measure pain, perhaps not in the absolute, but rather as a trend. Useful yes, and silly at times since two people can have the same traumatic event (such as surgery) and then report radically different amounts of pain.

    Happiness as you know is a fav subject of mine and there has been some very good research into this. I also have read "The Geography of Bliss" and while Weiner make some very good points, his book is more about traveling than happiness. Some of the best research I have seen relates happiness to 3 major factors; genetics, circumstances, and intentional activities. Genetics plays a very large role in determining our baseline happiness. Approx. 50% of an person's happiness derides directly from their genetics, although the role of the enviroment on their epi-genetics I have not seen explored.

    Most of us assume that circumstances play a major part and it can. If you do not have a roof over your head, food on the table, healthcare when you are sick, you likely to be less happy. And like your coffee, changes in circumstances can bring increased happiness however.... we tend to accomodate for this. Such gains in happiness are usually short-term. An example would be buying a new car. It does make you feel better until you have own it for a while and then suddenly you find yourself looking for a different ride. Overall, circumstances makes up about 30% of your happiness. Plus there are limits to which and how much circumstances can be changed.

    So what's left, just a measley 20% and yet.... Intentional activities can provide long-term improvements whereas you can not change your genetics and circumstances will only take you so far, and only for so long. Activity like getting to the gym, helping others, attending AA meetings, coaching kids soccer, church, fatith based activities..etc, all can make lasting positive impacts on us. In fact it seems that this is the only way to really change our happiness.

    1. Thanks for the insights, Dad =)

      It's definitely important to consider all the aspects of what could possibly make you happy: Circumstantial + activities/desires + genetics. You suggest a % breakdown between the different components, which of course must each differ in weight between people.

      What hope is there of true happiness, then, for Les Miserable who are damned with "sour genes"?


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