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Can Happiness Be Measured?

David Cowles

Apr 9, 2024

“How much beauty is there in Dali’s Last Supper?”

In the Spring Issue (3/1/2004) of Aletheia Today Magazine, we explored the concept of ‘Happiness’. Is the concept even meaningful? If it is, how do we define it, where do we find it, how do we create it?

Well, now we know! Happiness, the Summum Bonum of life according to J. S. Mill, et al., is nothing but an algorithm…at least according to a company called WalletHub (WH). 

‘Happy’ is one of a handful of predicates that cannot be combined meaningfully with any negative particle. Huh? Ok, no one can meaningfully say, “I wish that painting was less beautiful, I wish our knowledge was less true, I wish our laws were less just, (or) I wish I was less happy.” 

Of course, you can say all these things…but you can’t mean them, not literally any way. Why not? Well, to make a painting ‘less beautiful’ would make it ‘more beautiful’…in your eyes, or you wouldn’t do it. Same with ‘happiness’; how many people do you know who make themselves ‘unhappy’ because in the long run, they are ‘happiest’ when they are ‘miserable’? 

To suggest without a hint of irony or humor that ugliness is better than beauty, falsehood better than truth, exploitation better than justice, and misery better than happiness constitutes a failure to understand the terms themselves.

Beauty, Truth, Justice, and I suppose, Happiness are absolutes. ‘Desirability’ is embedded in the denotative meaning of each. In fact, they define desirability; they stimulate all desire. They are what makes ‘the desirable’, desirable, i.e. that it is beautiful, true, or just (objectively), or that it makes you, or me, happy (subjectively).  

WH measured the ‘average happiness’ of residents of 182 large U.S. cities. Stop right there! To ‘average’ something, you must be able to quantify it and it must be subject to the operation known as ‘division’. Beauty, truth, justice, and happiness cannot be reduced to a real number, they are not divisible (even by 1), and they cannot be arranged on a linear scale. 

How much beauty is there in Dali’s Last Supper? Which is more beautiful – the Mona Lisa or Guernica? What is half a Van Gogh? These questions are not ‘well formed’; they are absurd. But that did not deter WalletHub:

WH linked ‘happiness’ to a set of parameters chosen for their collective ability to measure a person’s overall sense of well-being -  physical, emotional, financial, and social:

  • Physical Health, Adequate Sleep, Participation in sports, Life Expectancy.

  • Metal Health, Rates of Depression and Suicide, Life Satisfaction, Use of Marijuana, Use of Opioids.

  • Food Security, Income Growth, Household Income, Job Satisfaction, Job Security, Job Opportunity, Rates of poverty, unemployment, underemployment, and bankruptcy, Hours spent working, commuting, and at leisure. 

  • Public Policy, Charitable Activity, Community Spirit, Rate of Separation & divorce, Hate-Crimes per capita, Acres of Parkland per capita, Weather.

WH assigned different weights, some positive, some negative, to these different parameters. Although the authors cite various ‘studies’, the selection and weighting of these parameters was ultimately subjective. 

Honolulu has better weather than Buffalo…unless you like snow and dread tsunamis. Or perhaps you don’t give a fig about the weather! Leisure time is good…unless you’re anxious, or easily bored. A long commute is undesirable…unless you use the time to listen to audiobooks…or just to decompress. The conclusion of the study is clear: If you live in Cleveland or Detroit, move out! If you live in San Jose, CA or Madison, WI, bliss out! 

I’ve never been to Madison, but I can assure you that there are plenty of unhappy people in San Jose (Stress much?)…and many happy people in Cleveland (home of the  Cleveland Browns, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and best Eastern European food this side of the Krakow.) What more could you want? Oh, right, parkland. Well, you can’t have everything…even in Cleveland.

This WH study tells you everything you need to know about one thing and one thing only: the values of the folks conducting the study, and per Jacques Derrida, the values of the culture from which they sprang. 

Heck, you can do this at home! Make a list of 5 things that you think would make you happy. Then make a separate list of 5 places you think you’d be most likely to experience those 5 things. Bingo! Now you know what happiness is and where to find it. If you’re still unhappy after that, it’s your “own damn fault”. (Jimmy Buffet)

Alcoholics Anonymous has a term for this: it’s called ‘the geographic cure’. A friend of mine said it best 50+ years ago: “I’d love to see the world…if only I didn’t have to bring myself along.” 

In my experience, people in Boston complain about the weather incessantly. People in San Diego…not so much! But that certainly doesn’t mean that moving to San Diego will make you happier. It doesn’t work like that, WH notwithstanding.

Like Beauty, Truth, and Justice, Happiness is holistic. It is not the sum of parts; it is a Gestalt. That’s not to say that objective factors don’t play a part, they certainly do! It just means states of happiness cannot be ordered linearly and that there’s no straight line linking specific variables to overall contentment.


On the one hand, speculation of this sort (WH) can be viewed as an innocuous parlor game. It’s fun to see where your city ranks. On the other hand, such exercises reinforce cherished fallacies:

  • If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. (Positivism

  • If a > b, and b > c, then a > c (Transitive Property

  • “…There exists nothing which could judge…the whole…(because) nothing exists apart from the whole!” (Nietzsche

Bottom line: If you live according to WH’s Happiness Algorithm, you will one day lament, “I measured out my life with coffee spoons.” (Eliot)



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