Can happiness be quantified?

The shy bird cannot be measured

The happiness we all dream of turns out to be a contradicting concept on closer inspection. Because the intimate feeling of elation is something different from the average satisfaction that we can quantify and increase in a targeted manner.

Happiness is a bird. Let us resolve not to weigh down something so light as a feather with leaden brooding. Let us first listen to the vernacular to see what he thinks he knows about it. "People‘ often argue about the value of happiness, "sings the carpenter Valentin in Raimund's" Spendthrift ". But strange, that's where the questions start. Isn't it completely out of the question that happiness is something valuable, perhaps even the most valuable thing in life? Nevertheless, it sounds a bit hollow when someone explains to us: "The meaning of my life is to be happy." Because this confession is so trivial and meaningless? Or rather because one cannot strive for happiness at all? The bird sits on our shoulder, "liab, but shy", as it is called in the Viennese song, but it cannot be caught. Nevertheless, the Americans have written the "pursuit of happiness" as a fundamental right of every citizen in their constitution. "Luck helps the brave", "Everyone is the blacksmith of their own fortune" - even such brisk sayings suggest that we have it in our own hands.

Happiness is very individual, intimate, subjective. Let's assume we meet someone who has everything one could wish for: money, professional success, a loving life partner and lovely children. If, in spite of everything, he assures us that he is totally unhappy, we can hardly say to him: "Not true."

But these quiet notes from the depths of the soul are opposed to an army of scientists who loudly assure us: We have measured, scaled and compared happiness and can now tell you exactly what causes it and how the state can control it. Such contradictions almost make us despair. Finally, as in the “Hobellied”, we also doubt the value of happiness: Are we just chasing after a vile lust, are we setting ourselves an egoistic, immoral goal? And doesn't too much happiness spoil us because it dulls us and makes us weary? - which is probably the psychological meaning of Schiller's "Ring des Polykrates".

From ice cream to enlightenment

We are close to agreeing with Valentin: “In the end‘ nobody knows nothing. ”But we cannot accept that, at the beginning of 92 pages of newspaper, packed full of happiness from cover to cover. We'd rather try to clarify in advance what we're talking about and what drives our longing. Happiness is a feeling, a particularly positive one, a feeling of elation. It shows itself in many delicate gradations, from joy to bliss. But it is not there in isolation, but as a companion to something else that is valuable to us. The whole range is now possible. What can not make a person happy: a slice of ice cream and a motor yacht, a shy kiss and wild passion, a string quartet and a techno party, a religious enlightenment, flowering meadows, the smile of a child or the loyalty of a friend. That is why happiness shows so many nuances.

On the other hand, those who “have luck” (for which, by the way, the same word is used almost exclusively in German), come to a good unexpectedly, be it through success or by chance. Whether that "makes him happy" is another question. Because goods may have an objective value, goods even a price. But the strength of the feeling of happiness does not depend on it, but only on the ability to be receptive to the value of the good.

Now it seems to be a psychological fact that we lose this ability when we chase luck - which brings us back to the "bird". Perhaps it is also because something specifically strived for - the vacation, the promotion, the offspring - turns out to be not as great as expected as soon as it finally comes true. But above all: Only the possession of material goods can be striven for directly, and even that only to a limited extent. There are always plenty of others who have a more expensive car and a nicer house. All spiritual and spiritual goods, especially love and affection, cannot be forced at all. If they do make us happy, then like the bird that perches on our shoulder. If he flies away, the abyss of misfortune often opens up.

Of course, these great feelings, with which everyone has to wrestle for themselves, can also be dimmed down to a socially communicable level, from poetry to prose. Then it's about something else: about the objective possibilities of people in a society to realize their specific wishes. This is what politicians and economists mean when they talk about the “happiness” of citizens or consumers. Then it's about very tangible things: wage increases, purchasing power, the quality of schools and how quickly you can get from Vienna to Salzburg. You should hang this narrow-gauge happiness for studies and talk shows a little lower and rather just talk about satisfaction. Most of the following articles are about them. For good reason, because only this can be publicly negotiated - especially the question of how it can be increased through good politics or innovative technology. So this satisfaction is what we can forge.

To do this, it is worthwhile to first quantify and measure them, which we do not want to turn up our noses at. The Swedes are happier than the Austrians because they get 7.8 in the happiness index, but we only get 6.5? Why not, if such scientific gimmicks encourage us to copy something clever from the cheerful Swedes.

Successful life instead of pleasure integral

But we should be careful not to carelessly mix the two levels, having and being. Otherwise we fall into the trap of only thinking in economic terms: happiness as a utility function in a coordinate system in which every point has its price. Then the emotional value also shows up as a caricature that causes discomfort. Is it the goal of life to string one exhilaration after the next, to maximize the integral of a curve? Then happiness would be nothing more than vile lust, and we ourselves would be Nietzsche's last human beings, with a luster for the day and a luster for the night. It would also not work at all, because the feeling of elation needs the contrast in the living being, so as not to flatten out. No work without work.

A (slightly macabre) thought experiment shows that we mean something different when we think of happiness in life. Suppose we are offered two lives to choose from. The first is lustful almost to the end, only it ends with the fact that we are publicly executed with the scorn and hatred of our fellow human beings. The other is quite ordinary, mixed with joy and sorrow. But because we have achieved some of what we set out to do in it, it rounds off harmoniously and ends in reconciliation. Who among us would not prefer the second? This indicates that happiness as a whole also means something like a successful life.

But even for this success there is no objective measure. Regardless of whether we have a lot or a little that is joyful in our life: it's always about consciously experiencing it and feeling grateful. Can that be learned? Then happiness becomes a task - and maybe even, as with the ancient Greeks, the highest virtue.