The Measure, and Measurement, of All Things

No older, more oft-asked question exists than: “What is happiness, and how do we find it?” Our politics and our economy revolve around this question. Politicians tell us of their hopes for our better life, advertisers try to convince us that their products will secure a happier existence, and therapists probe our psyches to remove the barriers to bliss. These are the contemporary, mainstream first-responders to the happiness problem.

The Catholic response, once the mainstream in the West but now in the counter-culture, is different.

This week’s focus on U.S. economic performance is a reminder that some years back, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, frustrated by slow economic growth, organized a group to assess happiness in terms of something more than growth in gross domestic product (GDP). He enlisted several superstar economists, who suggested substituting a broader set of numbers. The effort left little trace.

But nothing comes more easily to a utilitarian culture steeped in scientism than trying to measure everything, including happiness. Measurement is a critical tool in the physical sciences. It enables everything from medical diagnostics, to the manufacture of highly reliable cars and planes and computers, to scientific discoveries such as planets in other solar systems that might support life – or the Higgs boson particle (or something like it) that excited physicists last year.

Measurement can also help our understanding in the social sciences. In the aggregate, human behavior does display discernible and predictable tendencies, perhaps as one would expect from people with a common nature. 

To try to measure happiness, the Gallup polling organization publishes a “Well-Being Index.”  It purports to be “based on the World Health Organization definition of health, which is, ‘not only the absence of infirmity and disease but also a state of physical, mental and social well-being.’” The data are broken down by state, municipality, and congressional district.

The 2012 Gallup report shows the least “well off” locales in dark red or orange, the best off in green. There seems to be no correlation between a state’s political red-blue hue and its well being, though the worst-off states are in the south running up through Ohio and Indiana. But the study’s methodology as presented on-line is incomplete. It shows only rank orderings and relative comparisons, not actual scores and results, so it’s impossible to say how good or bad things really are. It lists the general topics covered in interviews but not the actual questions asked.

             Real happiness
             (Compassion by William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1897)

Moreover, the survey gives predominant weight to physical health, including factors such as obesity and access to health insurance (as Fr. James Schall might note, Socrates, St Thomas Aquinas, and G.K. Chesterton would have come in as deeply unhappy).  It vaguely attempts to measure non-physical variables.

And although the on-line reports make much of the period in late 2008 and early 2009 when the percentage of respondents characterized as “struggling” exceeded those who were “thriving,” the really remarkable thing about the findings on the overall “mood” of the country is their consistency: the average well-being trend line stayed within about 3 percentage points from January 2008 until now, despite all the turmoil of that period.

These measures tell us very little, aside from the finding that, by whatever questions Gallup asks, people in Hawaii are “better off” than those in West Virginia. It says nothing about real happiness and is not even useful in deciding where you might want to live.

But a richer quantitative approach to happiness is found in the Legatum Institute’s annual Prosperity Index. Legatum’s international survey seeks to understand the conditions that allow people to thrive and prosper rather than defining such outcomes centrally for all circumstances. It tries to measure the quality of political and economic institutions as well as a full range of social factors, including church attendance.

In this index, measurement is put in proper perspective. I recently participated in a Legatum-sponsored panel in Washington on the question of “politics and culture – do they need each other?” This was part of a week celebrating the world premier of a choral work commissioned by Legatum and composed by Sir John Tavener, performed at the National Cathedral. There is more to Legatum’s broad inquiry about happiness and a good life than survey data, though the data play a useful role.

The Catholic view of happiness has, of course, always seen us as restless in this life, until we rest in God in the next. The Church alleviates suffering in this very real material world and sees potential redemption in all suffering, while knowing that final happiness must wait. Material progress is both possible and good. But efforts to bring that final happiness to fruition in this world, substituting any possible means for the true end of God, are ephemeral at best, dangerous at worst.

One of the best depictions of this contrast comes in Fr. Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 apocalyptic novel, Lord of the World, in which Catholics are crowded by materially advanced modern states into a few locations, one of which is Rome restored to the temporal authority of the pope. A Nirvana of health, it is not: 

Here were to be seen the ancient inconveniences, the insanitary horrors, the incarnation of a world given over to dreaming.  The old Church pomp was back, too. . .the Blessed Sacrament went through the ill-smelling streets with the sound of bells and the light of lanterns. . . .A brilliant description of it had interested the civilised world immensely for about forty-eight hours. . .the well-educated had ceased to do anything but take for granted that superstition and progress were irreconcilable enemies.

The modern world knows only what it measures. The Church may be accused of superstitiously resisting measurable material progress, even while it is the largest dispenser of aid to the poor in the world. But it knows more about real happiness, in this life and the next, than any poll data or stunning scientific observation can yield.


Dr. Joseph R. Wood serves in the School of Philosophy and Theology of the University of Notre Dame Australia, and is a Fellow at Cana Academy.