TLDR: It’s really hard to measure happiness.

How can I maximize my “long-term short-term happiness?” I wish I knew how to answer this question. Many people would tell me not to try. And some would say to just choose to be happy. That’s helped, but it hasn’t made my life blissful. 

And I think it’s possible I can be sustainably happier. Yes, I believe the “hedonic treadmill” is “real.” But I don’t think it’s a constant all-out sprint. I basically ate the same turkey sandwich for lunch every weekday from 8th grade through 11th grade.[1] I’ve enjoyed my lunch more since then. Even though I still essentially eat the same thing almost every day.[2]

Northeastern microwaved turkey platter

It’s not just my gut. There’s evidence that people can become more and less happy over many years.

Granted, those links essentially said, “I speculate black people are happier because they continue to enjoy encountering less racism” and “People are less happy while they’re in prison.” I think I’ve already made the simplest changes to increase my happiness. Further progress won’t be easy. 

So I think it’s worth considering making a more conscious effort to figure out how I can be happier.

What Should I Do?

I’m not expecting to stumble upon the secret to happiness. To become optimally happy, it’d help to do optimal research. But, “How can I do optimal research?” is a daunting question too. For now, I’ve googled variants of “how to maximize my happiness,” with and without rationalist site prefixes, and I tried Elicit

At this point, I’ve memorized the generic happiness advice. Sleep enough. Exercise enough. Eat well enough. Have good enough relationships. Meditate. Show gratitude. Write about gratitude in your diary. Have a purpose. Live your purpose. Get your hands dirty.

I’m thankful for some of that advice. If I’d never heard that exercise or writing was beneficial, I’m not sure how easy it would’ve been to discover that on my own. 

But research (and gut takes) often have flaws. And research tends to make claims about the average person or a certain demographic, which may not apply to me.

So I don’t expect to find all the answers I seek in academic papers anytime soon. I don’t expect myself to evaluate what I read perfectly either. 

I’ll try to do the best I can.

Measuring Happiness

What even is “happiness?” How do I measure it?

I can answer the first question for myself. When I define it as a positive emotional state or a good feeling, you may not quite 100% know what I mean. But, while I hope my words help you (that would make me happier), I don’t need to use words to communicate with myself. I can feel what I describe in writing as happiness.

Unfortunately, my communication with myself still needs work. If I ask myself, “How would I rate my happiness right now from 0-10?” I’d need to decide what I mean by a 0 and a 10. Is a 10 equivalent to the best feeling of my life so far, or the most happiness I could imagine?[3]

That question may not matter. I’ve never asked myself, “How happy am I?” when I’m really happy. I’m always too immersed in enjoying whatever I’m doing to ask myself that. Similarly, when I’m really sad I’ll know it, but I won’t be up for thinking about how to precisely quantify my sadness. Maybe I’ll tell myself this is the worst moment of my life. But I’d just say that because I’m in a bad mood. I don’t think I can perfectly recall how the saddest moments of my life felt. 

So, in practice, I feel most comfortable rating my current happiness from “very unhappy” (0) to “very happy” (10). With that scale, I’d say I’m a 5.2 out of 10 right now. Who are you to say I’m wrong? And it only took a few seconds to come up with that score. 

But I don’t think I have 100% consistent definitions of very unhappy or very happy. What I consider a 5.2 out of 10 right now might be a 5.4 to me next week.

From mid-May 2020 through June 2020, I rated my happiness on a daily basis (I missed a few days) using integers (a 1-7 Likert scale). And I think my definitions for each category (e.g., mildly happy (5), somewhat happy (6)) were consistent enough that I wouldn’t confuse them. But I couldn’t measure how my happiness changes that precisely on a Likert scale. And some days felt like they were in between a 5 and a 6, but I forced myself to choose one number.

Plus, when I say my happiness is a 5.2 right now, I mean right now. When I tracked my happiness, my mood generally fluctuated enough that I couldn’t do quick mental math to determine my average happiness for an entire day. I’d ask myself, “How happy was I when I had that fun conversation at 10am?”, “How unhappy was I when my roommate was being annoying at 2pm?”, “How much did I enjoy winning that game of werewolf at 9pm?”, “How stupid did I feel when I lost the next game of werewolf?”, “How long did I feel stupid?” etc. And I suspect I sometimes gave myself a higher happiness score because it temporarily made me happy to look at a higher number. Especially if it was higher than yesterday’s score. And maybe recency bias led me to more heavily weight what had just happened when deciding my score for the day?[4]

I never made a concerted effort to analyze my happiness data. Looking back at it now, I’ve quickly observed that I recorded being unhappy on days I was experiencing constipation.[5] I believe that.

But I didn’t need my old notes to remind myself that constipation made me miserable. And I assume I’d also notice something like winning the lottery made me happier.[6] I imagine quantifying my happiness accurately would be useful because it’d help me notice small long-term changes in my happiness level.

Indirectly Measuring Happiness

Ideally, I wouldn’t just want to know whether I’ve become slightly happier or unhappier. I’d want to know why. But to do that perfectly, I’d need to be able to know what contributes to my happiness. And measure it.

Some researchers are attempting to quantify happiness based on biological factors.

However, as far as I know, there’s no commercially available way to monitor the levels of my hormones or neurotransmitters (e.g., serotonindopamine, endorphinsoxytocin) associated with happiness. And just taking these hormones wouldn’t make me super-happy. That could cause serious health problems[7].[8]

Positive psychologists have also tried to break down what factors lead to happiness. They’ve come up with tests measuring these possible factors. There’s the PERMA profiler, the Secure Flourish measure, the Well-being Profile Prothe Flourishing Scale, and many more. They tend to essentially ask, “Do you have friends?”, “Are you physically fit?” and “Do you have a purpose?” in various ways.

Based on my experience trying Moodscope (a similar happiness test[9]), I’m not motivated to try taking any of those tests regularly. And these psychologists don’t necessarily have the same values or definition of happiness (and well-being, etc.) as me (or each other). 

Even if the creators of those tests defined happiness exactly like me, I’d face all the problems I had when I tried to measure my overall happiness. If my perceived quality of my social relationships contributes to my happiness, how could I precisely measure my relationships? If my physical health contributes to my happiness, how could I precisely measure my physical health? Etc. And how can I measure anything in a time-efficient way?


Earlier in this post, I wrote that I suspected I gave myself higher happiness scores because it temporarily made me happier. 

Similarly, I had a phase where I put thousands of little tasks on my to-do list. I convinced myself I was being productive by reducing the number of items on my to-do list. But that led me to weight each task equally, do shorter tasks first, and put off important tasks.

More recently, to improve my time estimation, I tried to predict how long it’d take to write a blog post. But I found myself deciding that certain research counted as work on the post based on whether I wanted my prediction to be correct.[10]

I scored that prediction after my first draft of that post which took 13 hours, 35 minutes, and 1 second. I spent another 12 hours, 12 minutes, and 20 seconds editing the post before publishing it.

The point is that any metric can be gamed (i.e., goodharted). So maybe I should try to find ways to judge my happiness based on certain outcomes? It seems harder to delude myself about metrics related to outcomes. For example, while I could convince myself to decide what counted as work on my blog post, I don’t see how I could get myself to believe more people read my blog on Substack than the number of views Substack says I receive.[11]

But isn’t life about “the journey, not the destination?” And it’s comforting to feel like I'm in control of achieving my goals. When I graduated coding bootcamp, I gave myself the goal of reaching out for 5 referrals per day to job search. If I’d made my goal “get a job,” I’d have to rely on other people to accomplish it. I don’t want to rely on others too much to be happy. 

However, I’m starting to think “It’s the journey, not the destination” isn’t a phrase that should be taken too literally. After all, isn’t everything done for an outcome? If I didn’t think reaching out for 5 referrals per day would help me get a job, I wouldn’t have done it. And, as I’ve said, I think the ultimate outcome I always want is immediate happiness.


I’m not sure where to go from here. How do I decide what to measure? How do I measure my ability to choose good metrics? Is it worth trying to come up with metrics right now? If not, wouldn’t that mean there’s something better I could do? What would that be? Maybe I should try to make a more positive impact? Maybe I should work on improving my relationships? Maybe I should do something else entirely? 

Or I may not want to come up with metrics right now because that sounds hard and not fun?

I don’t want that to be the reason. Coming up with metrics doesn’t sound “fun,” but I should do it if I think it’s worthwhile.

 I think I’m still uncertain about what to do next because the plans I’m considering are vague. And I don’t know how hard it’d be to make progress on them or how much happiness I’d receive from that progress.

But I know one thing I can do no matter how confused I am. It’s time to experiment!

(cross-posted from my blog:

  1. ^

    It was turkey, cheese, wheat bread, and ketchup. I can't remember what the cheese was or if it changed. I believe ketchup was replaced with mayonnaise (or mustard?) at some point.

  2. ^

    I eat ground turkey (every other day, I have ground beef instead), red kidney beans (which I rotate with black beans), spinach, mixed nuts (peanuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecans), butter, monterey jack cheese (I switch between different cheeses), and oats. I also have an orange separately.

  3. ^

    And if I felt happier than whatever I set to 10, I could give myself a score higher than 10, or I could give myself a 10 and translate all my other scores accordingly. So if I was 10% happier than my previous 10, I could either 1) give myself an 11 (since 11 is 10% higher than 10. 10 * 1.1 = 11) or 2) give myself a 10 and divide 10 by 11 to get a new score of 9.09 for my previous 10s. And I’d divide my other old happiness scores by 11 to get their new scores.

  4. ^

    One 1987 study claims that finding a dime on a copy machine leads people to report increased life satisfaction. (I could only find a copy of the study in German.) This study tried to replicate that study and said it failed to replicate. However, I don’t think it’s a perfect replication. That study asks people to rate their happiness after rolling dice to see if they win a quarter. I think it’d be more enjoyable to surprisingly find money.

  5. ^

    I wrote short notes explaining some of my happiness scores.

  6. ^

    There have been studies (and exaggerated (if not false) presentations about those studies) suggesting that winning the lottery doesn’t make people happier. But more recent larger studies suggest winning the lottery does increase happiness. Research on how the lottery affects happiness is discussed in more detail here.

  7. ^

    And taking opioids is similar to artificially increasing endorphins.

  8. ^

    I briefly looked into taking antidepressants. Per this test (I scored 3), which I found through this article, and my intuition, I’m not depressed, so I doubt that’s a good idea.

  9. ^

    I used Moodscope 3 times in April 2020. I didn’t find its 20-question test helpful, and its UI makes it take an annoyingly long time to answer a question.

  10. ^

    I didn’t always want my prediction to be correct because I wanted to appear calibrated.

  11. ^

    I’m aware there are ways I could make the Substack dashboard say my post got more views, (e.g., changing the DOM)  and technically get more views. (e.g., clicking on the post myself, coding/buying a bot to repeatedly view the post) But I don’t think I’d be able to convince myself that doing that would make me happier.

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Hello Matt,

I am interested in introspection, and have done some dyading and have worked a lot on differentiating emotions.  So, reading your piece about happiness, there are five things that come to mind:  

-The first one is about finding ‘happiness’ hidden in blended emotional clusters.

-The second is about defining happiness.

-The third is how I see a way to maximize happiness, with caveats.

-The fourth is about the potential costs, and two hypothetical options to choose from. 

-The fifth; Why this way might/might not be effective.  

First point:
In self-connection terms, freely using Nonviolent communication, the way you ‘know’ what you are feeling is not only by saying it. But by noticing whilst you name your emotion, if is dissonance in your system towards what you are saying, or resonance. And it takes a lot of practice to differentiate.  

There is an important caveat:  

In relation to something/someone, we usually feel more than one emotion, some of them even conflicting/opposing. Some are stronger, others weaker. So, in any given moment, in relation to any given situation, plan, idea, relationship or action - there are multiple different emotions. Most of us do not learn how to differentiate very well. We usually tend to blend the individual feelings in these emotional clusters into an approximate one. So, if you are happy (a bit), content (partly), satisfied (medium), anxious (medium), sad (partly) and relieved (>medium) related to finishing something a bit scary, but necessary - You might just name the blend «I’m so glad it’s over». But you might not actually feel glad, it is an approximation.

The second point:

This is related, but it is different. Here is an overview of emotions, called a ‘feelings inventory’ The first category are "Positive emotions", the latter negative emotions. When you are talking about happiness, I am assuming you are not only referring to feeling 'happy' (as opposed to all the other positive emotions)?

I am assuming you are referring to something like «Life-satisfaction» or «Happiness with life». In point one I mentioned blending emotional clusters into more easily presentable packages. In this case, the issue is that you will use some kind of metric to choose which approximations should go into the Happiness category, and which shouldn’t.

However, even without knowledge of all these emotions, I do not believe that people give very incorrect general assessments. The reason being that we generally want to feel satisfied, so even though the specifics are wrong, the overall measure should be right. So, even if you differentiate your emotions, by unmixing them - you will connect with more of both. More likely also more negative than positive emotions.

The third point:

Even though you might find more bad than good feelings, there are some immediate benefits to taking some time to find out «what is alive in you» with regard to specific situations. Since maximizing happiness is about meeting needs, you will meet some needs simply by increasing your self-connection and self-understanding through knowing more clearly which feelings you have with regard to specific people, situations, activities, etc. 

The ability to know your emotions in retrospect, can then be enhanced to know your emotions in the present - so they become clearer to you, and then also easier to listen to, as you are able to act more coherent between what you feel and what you do.

Furthermore, you might want to understand the difference between strategies to meet needs and needs themselves. As you get better at this, you might see that you usually argue a lot about strategies but would agree about the underlying need.

And finally, practicing NVC this way would then start opening up a new world, where you can get ‘happiness’ out of connecting with the negative emotions. (Aka Robert Gonzales - The beauty of the Needs)

To name a few. 

Fourth point:

As any Genie or sales-representative won’t tell you, there might be some fine print. The third point seems like a relatively surefire way of getting more general Life-satisfaction, so what is the problem?
The cost of understanding what makes you ‘, etc.,happy,' what that might feel like and how far away you are from it, might make you feel unhappier with life. What if your focus on happiness makes you dissatisfied about relationships, situations, activities etc. you previously were fine with? The longer you have been on a specific level of Happiness - the more you have created a world around you that fits with that level. If you try to change the level of Happiness, there will be increasing amounts of dissonance from your past actions, decisions, values and ideas.

There are no easy ways to solve that, but here are two different directions (there are more) to choose from in this situation. The general idea is to treat becoming happier, similarly to upheavals in life; like breakups, job-changes, sickness, etc. There more you are used to/entrenched on some happiness-level, the greater the comparative upheaval. 
And if you still find it meaningful to continue, even though it might be costly, it would make sense to slow down and plan in detail how to move forward - and understand that minor issues might not feel like that when the change is under way. Better add in room in your plan for unforeseen events you will not be Happy about (pun intended).

There is also the option, that you see it as not worthwhile or realistic to try to achieve leaps in your happiness level. Either for the time being, or just that the upheaval would be too big, I assume it would be better to simply stay where you are and rationalize/give meaning to the kind of Happiness you are able to achieve. You will be slightly more satisfied, and still within the safety of your Happiness parameters.

The fifth and last point

Simply that this kind of knowledge might not be very useful, on a personal level. I do believe changing one’s general happiness-level has hidden costs, but the direction to increase it might not be through self-connection or understanding feelings.  This is just an example, so even though it increases happiness in general - that does not make it is the best or only way.  I hope that in some ways contribute to your search for some footholds, and I hope it atleast gives you a modicum of Happiness :)