I asked three members of my family and one friend how they would measure happiness, success and other similar concepts.
My mother (a Swedish teacher) pointed to the scale we have in our language for measuring these things: for example, you can rate happiness on a scale of ‘contented’, ‘happy’, ‘ecstatic’ and words in between, and most people would be able to tell you immediately where they’d place themselves on such a scale. Success, she said, is something you can only measure by reflecting yourself in the perceived success of others (so you can’t be successful unless there is someone less successful than you, whereas you could consider yourself happy even if everyone was happy).
My aunt (a nurse) suggested that happiness and (more specifically) health is something you can only really measure by eliminating the alternatives: for example, you can ask someone if they’re in pain, if they suffer symptoms of discomfort etc., and then deduce from this if they’re happy or healthy. Happiness, in this view, is merely a measure of the lack of unhappiness.
My dad (a musician and writer of Zen literature and poetry) said that you cannot measure any of these concepts, since they are all inventions of the human mind, and any attempt to do so is futile. In fact, the process of attempting to measure something such as ‘contentment’ is a sure way of reducing your level of contentment. The reason we do try to construct false scales of happiness etc. is that as a species we are uncomfortable about living in the moment and accepting that the world around us is essentially transitory and lacks absolute values.
My friend (an unemployed physics graduate) told me he’d rate happiness on a scale of 1-10, or as a percentage, where “50% happy” is a benchmark state where “It doesn’t so much matter if I die tomorrow”. Success, he says, is inseparable from “success at”; that is to say, you can’t call yourself generally successful, you’d have to list the things you’re successful at and the things you’re not, and compare the lists.more...