According to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right. But what does that mean? Happiness is an incredibly difficult thing to describe and quantify—despite the research that’s been done on the subject.
Gallup conducts annual self-reported happiness surveys in which people anonymously rate their life satisfaction level. Every year, in more than 160 countries, they ask people this question:
“Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”
Researchers in various studies try to find associations between happiness, behavior, and personal characteristics. They also use the data to compare the happiness levels of different countries—which is why we often hear that Denmark is the “happiest” place on the planet. That statistic comes from the Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index, which uses Gallup’s data for the emotional well-being portion of its reporting.
Even though happiness is difficult to describe, we need to have some way of measuring it ourselves using something other than a Gallup poll or data gathered by other external sources.
That’s the opinion of happiness researcher and author Arthur Brooks, who said, “In order to understand and manage your own happiness, you need more nuanced self-tests, of which there are many.”
Brooks wrote in The Atlantic that his favorite self-test is the PANAS, or the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule. It measures “the intensity and frequency of positive and negative moods and feelings,” which he said clearly shows that positive and negative feelings aren’t incompatible.
Using PANAS, Brooks has outlined four categories people tend to fall into, each with its own fairly self-explanatory nickname:
- Mad Scientists: high positive affect and high negative affect.
- Sober Judgers: low positive affect and low negative affect.
- Cheerleaders: high positive affect and low negative affect.
- Poets: Low positive affect and high negative affect.
(“Affect” as it’s used here refers to the experience of feelings, emotions, and moods.)
The key, said Brooks, is to remember that self-reported happiness tests are simply a source of information we can use to understand ourselves better and to make positive changes.
Brooks also noted that you shouldn’t feel down on yourself for, say, being a Sober Judge when you may want to be a Cheerleader. All four types of people are essential for creating balance in the world, and anyway, it’s important to remember that the enemy of happiness is social comparison.
Using PANAS to measure the frequency and intensity of your feelings and moods is a good way to identify the vital role you play in the world. Understanding that may better equip you to be gentle with yourself and improve your well-being.
And if you want to improve your happiness, cut out the comparisons. You can never go wrong by spending less time scrolling and more time focusing on yourself and the important people and relationships in your world.