Home All Five Ways to Measure Happiness

Five Ways to Measure Happiness

written by Laura Musikanski 26 August 2015

Laura Musikanski is executive director and cofounder of The Happiness Alliance home of the Happiness Initiative and Gross National Happiness Index. Prior to that she was the executive director of Sustainable Seattle. She believes passionately that you get what you measure, and that it's time to measure and manage for the well-being of people and the planet. Laura is the author of How to Account for Sustainability and Sustainability Decoded. She is a lawyer with an MBA and devoted grandmother to Bruno. Laura's articles are here.

If someone told you that the question about whether happiness could be measured was settled and the issue at hand is how to use happiness data, would you believe it? Most would say no, but a growing number of psychologists, economists, community activists, and policy makers are proving that happiness is quantifiable and that the data is useful.

Happiness in National Policy

At the forefront among these is economist Richard Layard. His study of positive affect and gross domestic product data between 1964 and 1996 debunked the notion that economic growth is the key to happiness. Layard, Helliwell and Sacks, editors of the World Happiness Reports for 2012, 2013 and 2015, definitively prove that happiness can be measured, is being measured, and has a place in policy, academia, business, and communities.

In 2013, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), citing Layard 14 times, defined happiness and well-being metrics to include affect, eudaimonia, and satisfaction with life and life’s circumstances in the OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being. The OECD is the organization that collects and compares gross domestic product (GDP) data across countries.

Layard played a role in forming and fulfilling the 2010 promise by United Kingdom Prime Minister Cameron to make “happiness the new GDP.” That promise is in the process of being fulfilled in programs ranging from youth summer camps to expanding community time banking in some neighborhoods, and natural habitat restoration and nature improvement.

Happiness in Regional Policy

The small town of Creston, British Columbia used the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index to assess the well-being and happiness of the county. The GNH index is an internally and externally validated subjective measure of well-being based on Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness philosophy. It includes questions about affect, eudaimonia, satisfaction with life (Cantril ladder), and satisfaction with the domains of the economy, government, environment, community, social support, health, education, culture, work and time-balance.

Laura Hannant is a community activist who spent her youth as a child’s rights activist and had presented to the United Nations and Canadian Parliament before she turned 17. Laura worked with elected and appointed officials and community boards to form the area’s plan for measuring well-being, communicating the project, and using the data.

The partnership issued their happiness report card in 2015. They are using the data to inform allocation of funds to enhance the economic development through the enhancement of community and social support, with the first projects aimed at youth well-being. They plan to reassess the area in three years using the GNH index again.

Happiness in Academia

Professor David Pendery has been teaching college students for twelve years in Taiwan. With each year passing, he has become more concerned about the well-being of his students. In 2014, he used the GNH index to assess the happiness and well-being of student bodies at four different universities. The data supported his concerns. His analysis of the data includes recommendations ranging from integrating gratitude, mindfulness, and altruism practices in the classroom to engaging students in environmental restoration projects to address the pollution and habitat degradation of local beaches and wooded areas.

Happiness in Therapy

Psychologist Justus D’Addario has a small family practice in the Seattle area. Mindfulness training is core to his practice. In 2012, he taught a nine-week class on mindfulness practices. He asked participants to take the GNH Index before and after the course. He encouraged his students to use the GNH index not only to assess their own well-being but also to contemplate the different aspects of their lives and how to integrate mindfulness and bring about greater integrity and balance into their lives. His findings from using the GNH index for the class fortified the importance of mindfulness practice for personal healing and growth.

A Call To Action

Between 2013 and 2014, two seminal publications on the future of happiness and well-being indicators were issued. The BRAINPOoL Project: Beyond GDP – From Measurement to Policies report was the final product of a commission designated by the European Union. The other, Subjective Well-Being: Measuring Happiness, Suffering and Other Dimensions of Experience was the result of a commission brought together to inform U.S. federal government policy.

Both call for a new narrative. Both call for the use of a subjective well-being indicator to measure the impact of an intervention. The importance of the call to spread the use of happiness indicators at all levels is as important as the need to tell the stories of how happiness measures are being used to make a difference.

The Happiness Alliance, a grassroots project, is one of many answering that call to action by offering the GNH index. They have been working with individuals and groups ranging from city officials to book clubs since 2010. Their purpose is to provide tools and resources, including the GNH index, that will lead to the creation of the stories that will shape a future where happiness, sustainability, and well-being guide our lives, societies, and economies.

Notes from the author:

  1. If you would like to use the GNH Index or get your own assessment of your well-being, go to happycounts.org and sign up. You can create a group to use the GNH index for a community, project or population for free. If you would like to add questions to the survey or analyze your group’s data by demographics, email us for a coupon to do this without the fee.
  2. The 5th OECD World Forum, Transforming Policy, Changing Lives will take place in Guadalajara Mexico from October 13 to 15. The application to attend closes on August 31. It is free, and a great opportunity. Lots of important people will be there. From the Welcome Message: “While statistical challenges remain, the fundamental question is no longer “How should we measure progress?” but “How do we best put those measures into practice to improve public policies and people’s lives?” The 5th Forum aims to address this last question, by showcasing real-world examples of action and implementation.”

GNH domains



Creston and District Community Directed Funds. (2015). Creston and District Happiness Report Card.

GOV.UK Cabinet Office. (2013, July 23). Wellbeing: policy and analysis.

Helliwell, J., Layard, R. and Sacks, J. (2012, 2013, 2015). World Happiness Report. United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Happiness Alliance. (n.d.) Gross National Happiness Index Survey.

Layard, R. (2003). Happiness: Has Social Science a Clue? Lionel Robbins Memorial Lectures 2002/3 delivered at the London School of Economics.

Milner, M. (2015, July). Happiness matters. Kootenay Business.

National Research Council. (2013). Subjective Wellbeing: Measuring Happiness, Suffering, and Other Dimensions of Experience. Product of the Panel on Measuring Subjective Well-being in a Policy-Relevant Framework. A.A. Stone and C. Mackie, Editors. The National Academies Press.

OECD. (2013, March 20). OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being. OECD Publishing.

Pendery, D. (2015). The Taiwanese Student Happiness Initiative: Fulfilling Lives and Success in the Future. Journal of Social Change. doi 10.5590/JOSC.2015.07.1.01

Stratton, A. (2010, November 14). David Cameron aims to make happiness the new GDP. The Guardian.

Whitby, A. (WFC) et al., (2014, March 31). BRAINPOoL Project Final Report: Beyond GDP – From Measurement to Politics and Policy. BRAINPOoL deliverable 5.2, A collaborative programme funded by the European Union’s Seventh Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement No. 283024. WFC (World Future Council).

Laura’s two books are shown below:

Photo Credit: via Compfight cc
Measurement courtesy of KrzysztofTe Foto Blog
Red leaves courtesy of · David Gabriel Fischer

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Judy Krings 27 August 2015 - 3:30 am

Great resources, Laura. Many thanks!

Terry Bruns 27 August 2015 - 10:07 am


Nice article. Very interesting.
Thank you.

Laura Musikanski 8 September 2015 - 11:00 pm

Thank you! If you would like to use the GNH Index for a group (your students, a book club etc) and want to add questions or do the data dive, let me know and I will get you a “coupon” so there is no cost.

Also, just saw this article on Bhutan’s prime minister http://www.newsweek.com/country-where-happiness-more-important-growth-369786

From newsweek no less!


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