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Measuring Happiness

Updated on August 14, 2013


From its very inception, psychology has been devoted almost entirely to rectifying those minds which have gone astray from the norms of the time. From Freud’s neurotics to today’s myriad disorders, it seems that anyone can fall into the category of mentally diseased or disabled. Over time psychologists have developed many measures used for diagnosis and methods of treatment to rid people of ill functioning thoughts and behaviors. No small feat given the uniqueness of each mind. However, this focus on the issues in a person’s life is not sufficient in helping said person thrive. Simply curing one of their ills does not mean that they will be happy, or even for a person to simply “get better” as many people with disorders strive to do.

A new branch of psychology has come to fruition in recent years, called positive psychology (PP). PP is primarily focused on finding the strengths, virtues, and interests of each person so as to help them live happily with a good quality of life. To put it another way, PP uses an emphasis on the strengths of a person to prevent disorders from developing (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Quality of life (QOL) is; as defined by Davis, Shelly, Waters, and Davern (2010); “an overall assessment of well-being across various domains; a multidimensional construct including both health (i.e. physical, emotional, social) and non-health domains (i.e. finances, school, autonomy)” (p.174). If an individual is able to focus their efforts on developing their strengths, in addition to minimizing any disorders that may be present, said individual will have a greater quality of life, most often associated with a greater subjective well-being, or happiness (Ryff, 2013).

Waterman and Schwartz (2008) draw attention to a distinction between two types of happiness. The first is hedonistic happiness, which is summed up best as pleasure seeking (p.42; Ryff, 2013, p. 79). The main goal in hedonism is to acquire and experience the greatest amount of positive affect, or temporary state happiness, i.e. what people usually describe when asked if they are happy or not.

The other form of happiness is Eudaimonic happiness, or eudaimonia, best summed up in Aristotle’ thoughts on how to live, as referenced by Rynn (2013), is to progress through life in an attempt to actualize one’s true and best nature, or, to put it another way, “defined not in terms of being pleased with one’s life, but as the subjective experiences associated with doing what is worth doing and having what is worth having (Norton, 1976; Telfer, 1980).”

The three tests outlined in this paper focus mainly on Eudaimonic happiness. Hedonic happiness is not being excluded due to being inconsequential, but because when experiencing Eudaimonic happiness some pleasure is inevitably felt, whereas when hedonic happiness is felt, it does not follow that there must also be Eudaimonic happiness being experienced (Waterman, Schwartz, 2008). An example of Eudaimonic experience would be a runner who strives to be the best, with the “runner’s high” being experienced as well as the striving to become better than what they are or once were. In contrast, riding a roller coaster may offer a similar feeling to a runner’s high, but it is not tied to individual growth (i.e. for the fun of it.) That is not to say riding a roller coaster cannot be construed as a eudaimonic experience, or a runner’s experience construed as purely hedonic, but merely outline the notions present.

The first test described is the Solution Focused Inventory (SFI). The SFI is based upon the assumption that individuals have within them the ability to resolve problems, though people have this ability, they may require therapy to help shift their focus away from problem focused thoughts to solution focused thoughts (Grant, Cavanagh, Kleitman, Spence, Lakota & Yu, 2006). Prior to the development of the SFI there was no reliable measure for solution focused methods of therapy.

Next will be the Subjective Happiness Scale (SHS). People are poor at assessing how an event will affect their well-being, thinking that the ripples of either a good or bad event will last for a profound amount of time. With normal individuals this is not often the case, but why not? Individual differences, or individual subjectivity, play a larger role in determining a base rate level of happiness that is not long affected by any events, as opposed to the events changing the base rate of happiness. (Lyubomirsky, Lepper 1999). Lyubomirsky and Lepper (1999) created and tested the SHS in an attempt to find a simple, widely applicable test construct to measure these base rates, these subjective levels of happiness.

Finally, the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) will be looked at. This inventory was put together as a test pertaining to the VIA classification of strengths. The VIA-CS is to positive psychology what the DSM is to abnormal psychology, that is to say, a classification of strengths that contribute to overall well-being of individuals (Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Seligman, Park, Peterson, 2004). Each strength, or character strength, derives its meaning from virtues that have shown to be ubiquitous among cultures after a massive meta-analysis of research, studies, and history from around the world (Peterson, Seligman, 2004, pp. 33-55).

The organization of these tests is important to note. The order pertains to a hierarchy, starting at the micro level with the SFI, which focuses on a specific example of a strength of character, i.e., self-regulation (Peterson, Seligman, 2004, p. 499-503). The mezzo level is the VIA-IS, relating to not one specific variation of a strength, but to many. Finally, the SHS looks at the meta, or global, level of happiness in individuals.

Solutions Focused Inventory (SFI)

There are many options for therapy among psychologists and patients today, and gaining in popularity is solution focused therapy (Bradley, Bergen, Ginter, Williams, & Scalise, 2010). Similar in practice to cognitive behavioral therapy, solution focused therapy is based around changing the thought process of individuals in an attempt to better their lives by setting goals and plans on how to attain said goals. The other side of the coin is the more traditional, problem focused approach to therapy where the main purpose is to find the root cause of problems through analysis. While identifying problems is an important part of any therapy, it can quite easily lead to rumination (Grant, et al., 2012), or a persistent and debilitating focus on the source and meaning of problems. To increase understanding on solution focused therapy and its underlying mechanisms the Solutions Focused Inventory (SFI) was developed.

The purpose of the SFI. To measure the ability of subjects to orient themselves toward goals and activate self-regulation (i.e. goal orientation), constructing solutions and utilizing resources to best meet the requirements of the solution (i.e. resource activation, or RA), and the active avoidance of problem focused thought processes, (i.e. problem disengagement) (Grant, et al., 2012). Until the development of this test there was not a reliable measurement for solution based approaches to clinical therapy (Grant, et al., 2012).

Test design, structure, and scoring. A 12 item scale with three subscales, goal orientation (GO), resource activation (RA), and problem disengagement (PD) using a six point Likert scale, with 1 being strongly disagree and 6 being strongly agree. The 12 items are split up into the three groups and averaged, giving a score for each criterion. Additionally, each criterion score is summed to give a global score on solution focused thinking and functioning. By parsing up the questions in such a way, a hierarchy is developed that was the most accurate representation of the construct being studied (Grant, et al., 2012) (See figure A1).

Demographics. The test was developed using two groups of subjects, professionals in the legal and health fields (N=242(157 females, 85 males), m=41.92 years of age, SD=8.92 years), and undergraduate psychology students (N=322 (226 females, 96 males), m=19.8 years of age, SD=4.34 years).

Administration. The questionnaire was given to the subjects in small groups in as similar conditions as possible, with most possible confounding variables controlled for. The professional group subjects were participating in an intervention study on leadership coaching. The undergraduate psychology students were given course credit for taking part in the study.

Validity. Convergent validity was tested by comparing the results from the SFI to the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLs), the Personal Well Being Scale (PWBs), and the PT scale (a measurement of PT, or the ability to generate and hold different perspectives of self, others and the world (Grant, et al., 2012)), which is a subscale of The Empathy Questionnaire. The CHS was also used as a comparison for resilience, defined as “their propensity to rise to meet challenges and their commitment to action” (Grant, et al., 2012, p. 343). The underlying theory in comparing the SFI to these tests is the notion that an individual with a strongly solution focused thoughts would also report high satisfaction with life, psychological well-being, and resilience. It was also hypothesized that those individuals who score a higher score on a Depression, Anxiety and Stress survey (DASS) would score lower on the SFI. The SFI correlated positively with the SWLS (r=0.38; p<0.001), the PWDS (r=0.66; p<0.001), the CHS (r=0.65; p<0.001), and positively correlated on the items used for measuring PT (r=0.33; p<0.001). There was a negative correlation with the DASS as predicted by the researchers (r= -0.44; p<0.001).

Reliability. A between subjects comparison was run on a subset of the professional group from their normative sample (N=129) which was randomly assigned to an intervention group (n=72; M1=50.98, SD1=7.12; M2=54.05, SD2=6.84) or a waitlist group (n=57; M1=52.17, SD1=8.58; M2=52.86, SD2=6.90). The first set of tests was done at the leadership workshop that the professional group was attending and the second test was taken twenty weeks later. A repeated measures ANOVA was carried out, and there was a significant time interaction effect with those who were coached in solution focused leadership skills scoring higher (F(1,127); 6.17, p<0.05) (Grant, et al., 2012) on the SFI than those who did not receive coaching.

Commentary. Given the results of the studies run in the development of the Solutions Focused Inventory, it has shown itself to be a valid and reliable measurement of the underlying construct of solution focused thinking, goal driven propensity, and disengagement of problem focused thinking. The SFI would be properly applied by therapists to assess the treatments being administered to their patients, especially if the treatment was associated with PP or coaching (Grant, et al., 2012). It could also be useful in assessing applicants for a job or role where they would be in an environment where they need to cope with frequent issues, or perhaps severe issues.

Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS)

No one is bad at everything; in fact, most people are often skilled in one or several areas, while lacking in others. As mentioned before, most of psychology’s history was spent developing means of measuring how abnormal individuals were, with the main intent being curing of mental ills. Much more recently, positive psychology (PP) has taken an interest in not only achieving functionality, but also in helping individuals flourish. A measure that was developed with the idea of flourishing specifically in mind, is the VIA-IS, developed by Peterson and Seligman (2004).

Purpose. The Virtues in Action classification of strengths was created with a specific purpose in mind. With abnormal psychology having a large scale and well researched manual of disorders on which to use and build upon, the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DCM), so was the VIA-CS to be for PP (Peterson, & Seligman, 2004). Instead of disorders, the focus of the VIA-CS is on the classification of strengths, or character strengths (CS). Character strengths, as defined by Park, Peterson, and Seligman (2004, pp.603) are “positive traits reflected in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.” With people being able to report thoughts and feelings, and having observable behaviors, it is possible to measure these CS.

The strengths that were chosen are from a meta-analysis of many different cultures, both historical (such as Aristotle’s notion of virtue(s) (Peterson, & Seligman, 2004)) and current, distilled to the most salient, reliable, and valid values leaving 24 Strengths (see Table B1).

Structure and Administration. The VIA-IS is a 240 item questionnaire (10 items per strength), using a five point Likert Scale (with 1 being least representative of the test taker and 5 being the most representative). The test is administered either in paper form, online, or on a computer terminal. After taking the full inventory, the results are presented in rank order from the most salient in the client’s life to the least salient.

Age Range and Normative Demographic Information. The initial normative group was 250 adults (18 years and up), as of 2004 the group had grown to include 150,000 people. Its current version is for English speaking adults in contemporary United States and other English speaking countries. The average age is 35 years old, 2/3 of the respondents are women, some of which have post high school education, and are from the United States. For other populations, e.g. adolescents or populations with a primary language other than English, there are variations on the initial form, such as the VIA-Youth (Peterson, & Seligman, 2004).

Reliability/Validity. The VIA-IS has been shown to correlate with life satisfaction measures, such as the Satisfaction With Life Scale, especially the strengths Hope and Zest (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004), showing high levels of construct validity. Each strength that was chosen from the initial meta-analysis of cultures showed significant internal consistency, with the alpha levels of each strength over 0.70 (see Table B2). There were few ethnic differences in the US population, save for African Americans, who tended to score higher on spirituality, which matched other measures. All 24 strengths showed a medium correlation with self-reported strengths (rs=.5). A major strength of the VIA-IS itself is the test retest reliability, which, with a time laps between initial and follow up sessions, was consistently r > 0.70 (Peterson, & Seligman, 2004).

Commentary. The Virtues in Action Inventory of Strengths shows reliability and consistency well within the range of accepted standards of well-structured tests. One major drawback, as far as strength assessment itself, is the rank order nature of the feedback. Rank order, by definition, does not include enough information to instruct the test taker what the differences between the strengths are. The only comparative data available is the average ranking in the body of the normative population. However, the weakness is a feature and not a fault of the design. Peterson and Seligman were careful to construct the inventory in a fashion that did not emphasize the importance of, or impose, any strength over any other.

Subjective Happiness Scale (SHS)

How to increase happiness and how to attain, or maintain, happiness in light of the ills and hurts in life has been a nagging question present throughout history. Not only are there many different things that can make a person happy, but each person is affected by things differently and for different amounts of time. In fact, it has been noted that individuals are often wrong in judging how long they will be affected by significant events in their lives, both positive and negative (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999). This implies that there is an underlying cause, or trait that sets the base level of happiness in a person’s life, which has most commonly been defined as subjective well-being (SWB) (Diener, et al., 1999; Lyubomirsky, & Lepper, 1999). With a mechanism of happiness and quality of life, a measurement was needed, one that applied to many different cultures and populations, thus the SHS was developed.

Purpose. To measure the underlying level of happiness in a person’s life and assist with developing targeted approaches for psychological interventions and treatments and when to apply them. The major benefit of this study is that it combines the two types of common measures of subjective well-being, cognitive and affective (Lyubomirsky, & Lepper, 1999), into a single short test.

Description. As opposed to the majority of existing wellbeing scales, which measure levels of happiness or distress over a certain period of time and takes an average of the scores as the usual base rate, the SHS measures whether a person is generally happy or unhappy. The benefit of capturing an actual measure of their base level of happiness as opposed to an average of temporary states of positive or negative effect, which is not necessarily the same measure, as Lyubomirsky & Lepper (1999) point out.

Structure. The SHS is a 4-item test comprised of two categories of questions with each category consisting of two questions. The first category is about perceptions of their perceptions of themselves and how they think their social groups perceive them. The second pair of questions is about how they would rate the description of a hypothetical individual and how much that individual’s description would apply to them. Each question is rated on a seven point Likert scale (with 1 being the least descriptive of the test taker and 7 being the most descriptive of the test taker) (see Figure C1).

Age Range, Normative Sample, Demographic Information, Administration, and Scoring. Throughout the creation and testing of the SHS 14 samples were collected (N=2 732 (1 754 females, 962 males, 16 unknown)). Nine of the samples from three colleges, one from a high school campus, and four from the community (three from working people, one from retired people). Two groups were from Moscow, Russia (one working community group and one public university group). The age range for the university and high school groups is 14-28 years and the age range for the community groups is 20-94 years (Lyubomirsky, & Lepper, 1999). The subjects were tested in a variety of settings, from small groups to individuals in a laboratory setting. Once the survey has been completed, the scores from each question are averaged (the fourth question is reverse scored) giving a global score of subjective well-being.

Validity. Compared to measures on the same individuals across the 14 groups’ scores on The global happiness item, the recent happiness item, the satisfaction with life scale, the self-esteem scale, the life orientation test, two subscales of the Differential Personality Questionnaire (positive emotionality and negative emotionality), two subscales of the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (Extraversion and Neuroticism), and the Beck Depression Inventory the SHS produced results that were positively correlated to the measures of happiness and negatively correlated to the measures of depression (Lyubomirsky, & Lepper, 1999). Internal consistency among measures of happiness was quite high across the board (Lyubomirsky, & Lepper, 1991) indicating high construct validity.

Reliability. With a lag time between 3 weeks and 1 year the test/retest reliability ranged from .55 to .9, with .55 being one of the ones retested after 1 year. An advantage of this test’s normative sample is not only that it is of a quite large size, but that it also draws from populations outside of the United States and Western Europe as the majority of measures do (Lyubomirsky, & Lepper, 1999).

Commentary. The SHS is rather powerful measure of subjective well-being, showing significant correlations with related measures and the expected correlations with other related constructs. This is made all the more impressive considering that it is only a four item survey. However, there were not large enough correlations among any of the scales for the SHS to be considered an equivalent measure to any of them individually (Lyubomirsky, & Lepper, 1999).

The Subjective Happiness Scale would be immensely useful for a quick to use and easy to interpret measure of a person’s personality, especially if it was used in conjunction to other measures pertaining to well-being. Another characteristic that makes this such a useful measure is its huge normative population gathered from not only different social demographics, but also from different regions and cultures. A few situations that the SHS would be useful are after disasters to help differentiate between individuals who may have been affected in a long term manner by said disaster and those who may not.


The Subjective Happiness Scale, the Solutions Focused Inventory, and the Virtues in Action-Inventory of Strengths are acceptable measures for determining the factors in people’s lives that contribute to happiness at many levels. Each test meets the standards of validity and reliability set by the field.

The SHS is an exceptional assessment of global base rate happiness of individuals across many cultures, especially when a concise measurement instrument is required. It also takes note of important differences to consider when assessing individuals for levels of functioning and vocations.

The VIA-IS is a much more descriptive measure of factors that contribute to happiness that include a wide range of strengths, indicating what the test taker is good at and what they may need to work on. Having a list of strengths and their relative descriptiveness of the test taker builds upon, and fleshes out, the factors that contribute to their score on the SHS.

Finally, the SFI not only successfully captures an objective measure of its theory construct, but also indicates a person’s ability, at a given moment, to move in the direction of improvement from abnormal functioning. Being able to measure the prevalence of solution focused thinking indicates what therapies are applicable and will be most helpful in helping an individual develop self-regulation, which is not only a useful skill, but also an important factor in achieving happiness (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Used together, each test builds upon the other to give a consistent and comprehensive evaluation of a broad range of factors contributing to happiness and a guide to the development of self-actualization. These tests capture the true nature and focus of positive psychology and the study of individual differences, quality of life, happiness, and provide a guiding light into a brighter future.


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