The How of Happiness: The Subjective Happiness Scale

Reprinted with Permission from The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach To Getting The Life You Want

The Happiness Continuum

Human happiness, like height or temperature or IQ, lies on a continuum, a numerical scale that ranges from very, very low to very, very high. Shannon represents the lower end of the happiness continuum. Randy and Angela are at the high end. All of us fit somewhere on that


scale, and it is critical to find out where exactly that may be. No matter whether you are deeply depressed or are simply not as happy as you’d like to be, before you can begin the process of becoming happier, you need to determine your present personal happiness level, which will provide your first estimate of your happiness set point.

From the Greek philosopher Aristotle to the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud to Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, writers and thinkers have offered wide-ranging definitions of happiness. Aristotle wrote that happiness is “an expression of the soul in considered actions,” Freud noted that it’s a matter of lieben und arbeiten – to love and to work – and Schulz famously proclaimed, “Happiness is a warm puppy.” Most of us, however, are well aware of what happiness is and whether we are happy. To paraphrase the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, happiness is like obscenity: We can’t define it, but we know it when we see it.

I use the term happiness to refer to the experience of job, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. However, most of us don’t need a definition of happiness because we instinctively know whether we are happy or not. Academic researchers prefer the term subjective well-being (or simply well-being) because it sounds more scientific and does not carry the weight of centuries of historical, literary, and philosophical subtexts. I use the terms happiness and well-being interchangeably.

So, how do you measure the degree to which you are a happy or an unhappy person? Because no appropriate happiness thermometer exists, researchers generally rely on self-reports. In much on my research with human participants, I have used a popular simple four-item measure of overall happiness that I developed and call the Subjective Happiness Scale. The title is fitting, inasmuch, as happiness is inherently subjective and must be defined from the perspective of the person. No one but you knows or should tell you how happy you truly are. So reply to the four items opposite to determine your current happiness level, which you need to know before you can estimate your set point. (More on that later.)

Click here to download the Subjective Happiness Scale (and the full range of tests described in this article)

As you may have gathered, the highest happiness score that you can get is 7 (if you give yourself a 7 on all four items). I have administered this scale to many different groups of people, as have other researchers, and the average score runs from about 4.5 to 5.5, depending on the group. College students tend to score lower (averaging a bit below 5) than working adults and older, retired people (who average 5.6).

Now you have determined the value of your current happiness score. If you’re past college age, and your happiness score is lower than 5.6, then you’re less happy than the average person. To put it another way, more than 50 percent of people in our age group rate themselves higher on the scale. If your score is greater than 5.6, then you’re happier than the average person. Of course, what the “average person” is for you will depend on your gender, your age, your occupation, ethnicity, etc. But what’s important to remember is that no matter what your score is, you can become happier.

Could You Be Depressed?

Some of us are likely to be not just slightly unhappy but clinically or sub-clinically depressed. If your happiness score is 4 or lower or if you’ve been feeling down for more than a couple of weeks, I encourage you to complete a depression scale. (If not, you may choose to skip this subsection.) The depression scale takes less than ten minutes, and those minutes may turn out to be invaluable.

Opposite is a standard, commonly used depression questionnaire called the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale, of CES-D. There are many measures of depression, but this one is recommended for use with the general (i.e., nonclinical or nonpsychiatric) population. Follow the instructions to complete the scale and determine your overall depression score.


Click ahead for how to score the test!

The lowest score that you could possibly get is 0 and the highest is 60. Psychologists use the cutoff score of 16 to differentiate depressed persons from nondepressed ones. So, if your score is 16 or higher, you would be classified as depressed. Exactly how depressed depends on how high your score is; depression can range from quite mild (a score of 16 to 20) to moderate (a score of 21 go 25) to severe (a score of 26 to 60). Furthermore, unlike the happiness scale, the depression scale is acutely sensitive to your moods and to your general mental state, so that you would be expected to obtain different depression scores at different times, even as close as two weeks apart. If you are currently depressed of it you’ve ever been depressed, you are not alone. Studies show that 15 percent of people in the United States (and 21 percent of women) will become clinically depressed at some point during their lifetimes. Of the rest, half report experiencing mild depression occasionally, usually as a result of a major setback or crisis, be it a broken heart, the death of a loved one, a career failure, or a financial loss. Furthermore, the age at which people experience their first depressive episode has decreased dramatically during the last several decades. Incredibly, of all diseases, depression places the largest burden in the United States (and the fourth-largest disease burden in the world in terms of reduced years of healthy life, after perinatal conditions, lower respiratory diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and HIV/AIDS). The World Health Organization predicts that by the year 2020 depression will be the second-leading cause of mortality in the entire world, affective 30 percent of all adults.

Many experts believe that depression has become an epidemic. By some estimates, clinical depression is ten times more likely to torment us now than it did a century ago. Several forces may be behind this development. First, our expectations about what our lives should be like are greater than ever before; we believe that we can do anything, and we are profoundly disappointed when reality doesn’t meet or even come close to perfection. Second, our increasingly individualistic culture leaves us all alone to manage our everyday stresses and problems, compelling us to blame only ourselves for our shortcomings and failures. Increasing job insecurity also contributes to the many stressors of modern life. And perhaps most important may be the unraveling of the social fabric. Compared with previous generations, we feel far less belonging and commitment to our families and communities and are thus less buffered by social support and strong meaningful connections to others. All these factors may combine to make more of us clinically depressed than ever before.

If you have scored as depressed, I encourage you to see a mental health professional – a psychiatrist, clinical psychologist, or licensed counselor with whom you can discuss your options for treatment, including psychotherapy and antidepressant medication. Moderate to severe depression, especially, requires urgent attention from a professional. If you are depressed, you will also likely greatly benefit from the happiness-increasing strategies described in Part II of this book. Additionally, if you have scored in the depressed range, be sure to skip ahead and read the “Postscript” chapter (“If You Are Depressed”) before continuing to learn about those strategies, as you will need to know how to adapt the happiness program to your unique symptoms, feelings, and needs.