I mean, by now you already know that happiness is a weird human trait. Studies have shown that mental wellness has a deeply rooted link to physical health, such as stress causing a dry cough, efficacy of medications, and even one’s mortality. Happiness has been a hard subject to study because how the hell do you quantify such a thing? But forget quantifying it, the more interesting part for me is why someone feels the way they do. So here’s a thought experiment, “From 1 to 72, how happy are you with your life in general?”
I’ve asked maybe 50 people about this in person, and the way people answer this set of questions can tell you so much. Do they operate analytically by calculating a percentage and then scale it to 72? Do they go by their gut feeling? Can you tell they’ve thought about their happiness a lot? Can you tell that they haven’t thought about it at all? The questions go as follows:
Below is a real response from a single 18–24 year old student. This person rated themselves a 60 out of 72 in happiness.
Answer in detail like you would to a best friend, why did you give the answer that you did?
The use of 72 as ‘absolute happiness’ threw me off a bit (why not a number like 10, or 100, or even just 70?), but overall I’d say my happiness is more or less around 60 — I’m content with my life as it stands & I have no problems, but I’m not euphorically happy or anything. Life is going well, but I’m not necessarily in an interesting part of it as we speak.
What would need to happen for you to hit 72?
I would come pretty damn close to 72 if I were living in a small but comfortable house, in the middle of some woods with atmospheric & temperate weather patterns, removed but not too far from civilisation, along with my girlfriend & our collection of intriguing books and music. A comfortable salary for tolerable work would also be nice, as would a motorbike and a big hat. Actually, now I’ve written all this out, it’s quite heartening to realise that it’s not all that idealistic — I do live in a temperate country with forests & small houses, and between us we do have nice books & music. Oho!
For the things that you wanted to change, if you had to parse those things into happiness points, how many would you allot to each thing?
I would say the big hat gets 1 point, because… hats are cool, but they are only hats after all. The motorbike I’d say would get 2, the comfortable job would lowkey get 2 as well, and of the remaining 7 points I’m going to allot 3 to the house, and 4 to sharing it with my girlfriend. Of course, sharing a house with anybody can often go sour, but given that we’re talking about peak happiness here I’m going to assume that we don’t snap and murder each other in this scenario. I’m leaving the books & music out of this allocating, because as I mentioned earlier it all more or less exists anyway — it would just be nice to have it.
Without changing your answer, do you think that’s a fair assessment?
Happiness is a self-defined value, so my 72 might look different than yours. Maybe my 72 is laying on the beaches of Malibu, whereas for you it’s finishing the novel you’ve been writing all your life. But after asking 50 or so people I began to see trends. The specific words they use or the way they think about their happiness is fascinating to me. I was going to write this article based on those anecdotal stories themselves, but I decided to take it a step further and get some more data to analyze. I created this survey in hopes of making this an observational study and managed to gather 332 responses from the design and Reddit communities.
Ok so, why 72?
So there’s nothing special with the number 72 — but by reframing the question out of 72, it makes you think about the question in a different mindset. When questions are phrased out of the typical 1 to 10 or 1 to 100, people immediately think that the “appropriate” answer is somewhere between 7–8, and people are less inclined to rate themselves a high 8 or 9 in fear of seeming boasty or narcissistic. Rephrasing a typical scale forces people to think harder about the question at hand, and all of a sudden answering 65 doesn’t seem too bad, when in reality that’s 90% or 9/10.
These were some of the topics that people always mention as something that affects their happiness. For the most part, we already know this. But the more interesting parts are what people actually say and how they say them. All of the quotes are from the survey, and the numbers at the end are what people rated themselves out of 72.
To no surprise, relationships determine a great deal of a person’s happiness. People mention having good friends, but when it comes down to scoring what matters, people will usually point to a romantic partner, which will either make them happy or take away happiness points. Having a romantic partner is probably the highest-ranking determinant when it comes to happiness. One respondent ranked himself a 60 in happiness and when asked to elaborate on their answer, they responded with:
Wonderful girlfriend who makes me the happiest person alive (60/72)
Another respondent who also ranked himself a 60 said:
I am happy about virtually every field of my life (education, health, body image, hobbies and self-actualization, talents, future prospects, strengths, friendships, family etc.) — the only thing I’d want to change is that I’d love to have a partner, and I mean a really good partner. But considering that’s the only thing and I have no real reason to complain about anything else, I gave myself a 60, quite close to the maximum of 70. Let’s say 5 of the 12 remaining points can be elevated by me getting a partner, whereas the final 7 points are a mystery (and may always be a mystery). Thanks for reading. (60/72)
Almost everybody will mention money in their answer, whether they are content or not with their salary. We know from data that money actually does not have a correlation with happiness. What I did think was beautiful, was that even though people will spend a lot of time talking about money, when really asked how many happiness points they would allot to each problem in their life, the points for money tend to be small. Below is a response from someone who has a happiness score of 61 and an average salary of $10,000-$24,999:
So I’m at 61 (I think) so that’s 11 to allocate. Having much more time off allowed would be the biggest priority, as then I’d be able to attend more laser tag competitions! So that’s probably 5 points. 3 for driving and, 2 for the people around me having a positive attitude towards my work, and 1 for earning more money.
The opposite is also true when asked what it takes for them to get to 72. Below is a student who responded 56:
Having infinite money, going to a therapist, having friends and the body i want. Points: Money-15, therapist, friends, body-1
And from people’s answers, plenty of people who earn below an average salary say that they have enough, and those who earn above average will say they want more. Of course, there are different circumstances for everyone, but money is a common theme in people’s responses, suggesting that people believe having more money will make them happier.
For those who are in the working class, a job plays a large role in one’s happiness. Not only does it affect income but it’s also how people spend most of their time. Not intrinsically enjoying one’s job is a common reason for one to be less happy, but also interpersonal relationships at work can cause stress. For students, not knowing what the future holds causes a lot of anxiety and happiness points. The uncertainties are multifold: whether or not they will be able to apply their major to their job, whether or not they will end up liking their major, the job affecting future status with their current girlfriend/boyfriend, needing to move cities, etc.
Weight and Appearance
The desire to look physically attractive is a common theme that people mention. Depending on how people answer, it can show that they are valuing their own pride, other people’s opinions of them, their own health, or a mix of everything. However, the people who have it the hardest are those who are “overweight and have to face stigma and discrimination for that often” (31/72).
Mental and Physical Health
Several people mentioned that a large factor of their happiness is an existing physical condition, a temporary broken/healing body part like a leg, or mental conditions like depression, anxiety, stress, etc. Those with existing debilitating conditions seem to have it the roughest. I always thought that people who had such conditions from the beginning would be “used to it,” like it was the only way they knew how to live so that was their baseline. But there were answers that suggest, actually no, they are very much aware of it like a normal person would be, and the condition burdens them throughout their life.
What has to happen for you to hit 72?
Money, health, total change in my personality. I’m extremely neurotic with major depression that requires ECT to treat, generalized and social anxiety disorders, OCD, panic attacks, and psychotic episodes that occur when I’m under stress, leading to self harm, violent behavior, destruction of property, and multiple arrests and committals. I’ve been that way since before I can remember, with symptoms and breakdowns increasing as I age. I don’t think I have the capacity to be content, let alone fully happy, short of a lobotomy. (35/72)
Politics and World Problems
Several people mentioned that they couldn’t be happy knowing the state of current politics, climate problems, health care, social systems, and general world problems. To me, this was super interesting because it’s a very altruistic point of view to say that you could never be happy if others aren’t happy. The other reason I find it interesting is that these people are creating a ceiling for themselves. In other words, knowledge will continuously be threatening their happiness and they would never be able to hit their own definition of 72 as long as world problems exist. And there will always be world problems because new ones will form if we ever solve the hard ones like world hunger. Here are some interesting responses when asked, “What would it take to hit 72?”
Jesuschrist a lot of things. I mean I don’t think that is even possible, maybe there are certain moments where you can reach 72 due to the magnificence of what you are living in that moment (the moment you discover your crush likes you back, or a moment in a concert of your favourite group, or a psychedelic trip, the day of your wedding, or a promotion…etc) but 72 can’t be reached permanently, and the main reason is because the complexity of the word and the horrible things that happen every second in the surface of this planet. I can’t be fully happy knowing the existence of climate change, inequality of wealth, famine…etc (25/72)
Enough money to feel secure, reversal of climate change, no plastic use, world peace, loving romantic relationship, end of bigotry and hatred, end of the anti vax movement, socialism in place around the world, everyone vegan (48/72)
Lose weight, make more money, fix up house, Donald trump to be held accountable for his actions. (67/72)
A job. Friends. A cat. Security. A romantic partner. A government that cares about climate change. Health care I could actually afford. The world not turning back to fascism and racism en masse. For so much of the world not to hate me for being a lesbian. The financial ability to go on vacation. A car that isn’t 20 years old and falling apart. To be a completely different person living a completely different life. (24/72)
If you get the chance to ask people in person, it’s not uncommon for people to answer this high, but it’s usually a pleasant surprise. They adopt a half glass full mentality — In other words, they will talk about all the things that make them happy, like their relationship or their job, and later realize that there aren’t that many things that they’d want change.
Most people who answer in this range have a pretty good understanding of themselves, and know what they want. They are self-confident, and know what is realistic.
I’m rarely not happy. Catch myself smiling for no reason. Would have said 72 but there are some things I’d still like to accomplish (68/72).
At this stage, these people are down to the last things they need to make them fulfilled, so the things that they want revolve around more long term solutions or creating meaning in their life. See below for some answers:
I would need to be doing something extremely fulfilling with my time. Either creating something or helping others in some meaningful way (70/72)
Finish a book I’ve been working on my whole life. Perform music more often for more people (68/72)
Usually when I ask people in person, they also generally tend to have a very healthy mindset about their own happiness, with small goals to attain it. The things that they know will make them happy, are all completely rational and doable. The important part is they have a path to get there and they believe that they eventually will.
I would need to answer some deep questions about who I am that plague me, but that’s personal and minor; I would need to have a high-paying job that is mentally stimulating, enjoyable, and never stressful; I would need to be in a happy long-term relationship with a partner who loves me and whom I love; I would need to spend more time with my closest friends than I currently do; I would need to be more active in my favourite hobby, which is frustratingly difficult to practice. (65/72)
63 to 40
The vast majority of people are in this bucket. Most people here are still trying to figure out their basic needs like relationships, work, money, and health. Like the 63+ category, people generally have a healthy mindset about what makes them happy. They are humble, recognize that they’re very fortunate to at least have water to drink and a roof over their heads. They have small, attainable goals, and they score a bit lower due to just having more of these things to figure out.
I love my family, friends and current career path I am in. However, financial instability and a lack of an intimate relationship are leaving me a little down at times. (55/72)
I could definitely be happier if I had family or more friends in my life but overall I am content. I’m financially stable and I can afford to go get Starbucks a few times a month. (50/72)
What I did find interesting though, is around this band people start to tend to have one unrealistic desire laced into their happiness scores. You’ll hear things like “I want to lose weight, I’m going to go to the gym 3 times a week. I want to eat healthier so I’ve been trying to cook more. And I want to be rich.” You’re like wait, what? One of those does not sound like the others. Here are some prime examples:
Graduating, permanent job, partner, win lottery. (50/72)
All my diseases cured, and for part of my past to never have happened (50/72)
Having infinite money, going to a therapist, having friends and the body i want (56/72)
At this point, you can kind of see if that person is thinking about their issues in a healthy way, by asking them, “How?” For example, one of my friends said that he wanted to be famous, and his goals were to start an Instagram account, slowly accrue a niche and gain followers, leverage those followers to get sponsors, and snowball millions of followers. He had a plan of attack, and I knew from being his friend that he was actually working hard towards that goal with his plan. However, I still question the end goal of “being famous,” and thinking that it will grant you happiness. “What’s the point of being famous?” I’d ask. And he said “So I can get free vacations and meals in restaurants.” To me, that was a strange answer because the end goal does not seem to be rewarding, but at the end of the day, I remind myself that happiness is self-defined. On the flip side, an unhealthy way to think about how to be famous would be to say “I don’t know, I just want to be famous.”
In my experience and from the survey, there are a select few people in this band who answer like they’ve never thought about their own happiness before, which, can be concerning. Not having thought about what makes oneself happy can be a sign of lack of introspection and awareness. It can also signal a lack of understanding for who they are.
40 to 20
When I sampled friends, in my mind this range for me was actually from 30 to 10, which was a red flag zone. But when I was reading through the survey results, there was a significant change in responses at 40 and under. People start to mention depression more frequently, and people will admit to not feeling happy. Unlike people in the 63+ range, people have a half glass empty mentality. The lower the numbers get, the more they start off mentioning all the things that are going wrong, and have little to remember about the good things.
I have everything I’d ever want to, but I never ever feel happy or excited. I’m fine with the life that I’m living but I’m mentally just not really doing well right now. (36/72)
I am not unhappy but I am apathetic about my life as it stands. (36/72)
I feel pretty lost at the moment, about to finish school. I had a lot of plans for what I want to do after school but nothing worked out, I don’t even have a month now to find something and I’m running out of options. I’m really worried about my future. Not only because of that but also because of my social life. I have two close friends but I’m constantly worried about losing them as I’m not a person who likes to meet up often. It’s hard to make friends who stay and I feel it is getting harder to the older I get. I’m lonely very often. (33/72)
I am largely unhappy with who I am as a person, and I have huge concerns about the future. I often have very awful depressive episodes where I literally feel like everything is worthless & life is boring, and while I kinda *hope* to die, I have no actual suicidal intentions because I still have some awkward hope that it’ll get better soon. So I’m not happy, but im not totally despairing either. (30/72)
People’s answers here get farther and farther away from small attainable goals. They feel that happiness is so far away that “miracles” need to happen, and they assign a huge percentage of happiness to one thing. They start to chunk problems into one big solve, which end up being more farcical as they need to compensate for more issues.
For the things that you wanted to change, if you had to parse those things into happiness points, how many would you allot to each thing?
Money 30, Everything else 12 (30/72)
It’s mainly one thing, so all of it, but the first one alone [having children] might be worth 40. (25/72)
Communism: 50, Mental health: 22 (25/72)
Answers start getting a bit ridiculous and unrealistic for what it takes to hit 72, with no path of “how.” A lot of people in this band have suicidal thoughts without yet acting on them.
Hitting the lottery. While drinking a milkshake. While getting my dicksucked. Every single day. For atleast a week. Well I’d only need to hit the lottery first really (30/72)
I would need to cease to exist entirely. There is no security in dying and going to “heaven.” All “heavens” (regardless of how happy they are at first), after hundreds of trillions of years would eventually turn into “hells.” I’m pretty apeirophobic, so I would be happiest ceasing to exist. (37/72)
Restart my life as a girl. (24/72)
So you’re reading through and you’re probably thinking, ok these guys are probably giving troll answers. I thought that too at first, but I quickly realized that almost everyone responded with the same facetious, scornful, and skeptic tone. This was not some troll coincidence. Based on my personal anecdotes, I realized that people truly believe the seemingly ridiculous things that they say. That’s just the world that they live in and that’s the lens through which they see life. And possibly, that’s why we don’t take people seriously when they are secretly hinting that they are unwell. What may seem like a comical hyperbole in daily conversation could be what they really believe.
20 and less
At this point, people have basically stopped answering the questions. Most people’s answers are in a negative tone, sometimes with anger laced with profanity. A large majority of the comments are revolved around killing themselves, and seeing that as a means to be happy.
What would need to happen for you to hit 72?
I would be happiest, when I have a specific date for my suicide (12/72)
I need to make some friends and do something other than sit at home thinking about how much I hate myself. (11/72)
Time machine (5/72)
I would need to become someone else (3/72)
Nothing any more. Though, staying in my dreams forever (as in just my mind, another reality, my own reality or any other way) would improve it to 50–60. (1/72)
The answers no longer revolve around the basic needs and themes we listed earlier. Topics are not goal-oriented, and rather they are miracle oriented and have a sense of grandeur illusion. People are indifferent and lack care for the world. When asked “why did you give the number/answer that you gave,” people’s answers are short and uninsightful.
Because I am not happy at all with where I am in my life right now. The only reason I gave that number is because of a few things I managed to buy to waste my life away. (15/72)
Because I’m at a low stage of my life. (10/72)
Because I can’t be happy (0/72)
In person, I have never been able to tell which friends were going to answer 20 or less. It is incredibly disheartening to myself when friends so close to me say they are feeling helpless, and I hadn’t realized all this time — especially having studied psychology in undergrad. It really goes to show that you never know when people have depression.
Of all the people I’ve asked in person, I’ve only had one person answer 72. The way they responded when I asked how happy they were, they looked at me straight in the eye, with full confidence, with no hesitation and said “72.” I was like wow, his confidence was so striking.
I’ve only had one person answer 1. When they answered, they shook their head for a bit, shrugged it off and said, “Zero.” I was like, “Umm…sorry the scale was 1–72,” in which they responded, “Oh, well in that case, 1.”
The difference in the way these people answer is very telling of their mental state. In fact, I know now this is no mistake, because there were actually two people in the survey who also responded with zero. There were four people who responded with a 1. I feel like only when you’re that down in life, that you can even think of going outside of “lower than 1.”
Assigning points to happiness
So the purpose of this question:
For the things that you wanted to change, if you had to parse those things into happiness points, how many would you allot to each thing?
Is actually more for the responder than the person asking. It’s supposed to help you assess what you deem actually matters to you, and whether or not that’s a fair assessment.
That’s why the question directly after that is:
Without changing your answer, do you think that’s a fair assessment of those points you just allotted?
For example, let’s say I would be 30 points happier if I got a boyfriend. The follow up is aimed to question, “Really? Do you think almost half of your happiness in life is from having a boyfriend?” Those who say “Yes,” have the opportunity to change their mentality and the way they perceive their happiness. If you can realize that actually, having a boyfriend is probably worth maybe only 10 points of happiness, you could essentially become happier without making any physical changes to your life. You can learn to not be consumed by just one aspect that you believe dominates your life, and instead spread them to a bunch of smaller aspects. Those who answer “No” to the question of “Is that a fair assessment,” well, you already know what to do or it means you should think more about what actually matters to you.
We’ve already stated that happiness is self-defined and that 72 is a place for the happiest that you can be. Even so, a subset of people tend to create a “ceiling” for themselves on their own definition of happiness. They believe that they could never hit 72, that it’s an impossible place. This mentality is true for people in all happiness ranges, not just low rankers.
I feel like 72 might be a level impossible to achieve. Maybe if everyone’s health was A+ I could do it. I’m pretty damn happy as is. (67/72)
I’m not sure I can imagine that (60/72)
I think it’s impossible. No one can ever be entirely happy. Buddhist monks spend their entire lives trying and it’s basically fruitless. You can be very, very close, but never entirely happy. There’ll always be one more thing that could be better. (60/72)
I don’t think I could. I will personally always find something to complain about but a nice active relationship would be a big change to my score. My part time job paying more would be nice. I try the most out of everyone at work and feel like I could deserve more. (59/72)
I couldn’t ever hit 72. (20/72)
Well this is an intriguing psychological phenomenon because again 72 will be a place defined by yourself. For these people, let’s say the highest they think they could reach is 68. By this metaphor, their 72 should be our 68. In other words, their scale would be 1 to 68 just stretched out to 1 to 72. Right? But if you said that, they would probably create a ceiling for themselves yet again. They would tell you they could only hit 68 on this new 72 scale that is disguised as 68. Well then I’d say the same thing, stretch the scale until 72 is the happiest you can be. But now their scaled 72 is our 64. They are looping themselves infinitely, and have created a mental limit for themselves.
This concept can be applied in other ways, too. Whenever people say unrealistic or improbable things that you cannot directly control, like their mom coming back to life, winning the lottery, or becoming famous, that in itself is a ceiling. If it’s not going to happen, then you can only reach as high as you can grab.
There is one grey exception though. Some people’s happiness depends on other people’s. If you depend on nationwide happiness, I’d say that’s a clear ceiling. But even if it was just your family, or your spouse/partner, I might argue that’s putting a ceiling on yourself too. Because although you have the potential to affect those people’s emotions and mental state, even if you did your goddamn best, there is still the possibility that they won’t be happy. At that moment, you have created a ceiling and are limiting yourself because there is nothing more that you can do.
I just wanted to point out that I’m actually incredibly surprised at how many people mentioned winning the lottery is what it would take for them to be happy. Like not even, “get a raise at work,” or “get promoted,” just straight up, “I need to win the lottery.” I think that to me is a symbol of grandeur illusion or a form of helplessness. It signals that the person wants to be wealthy without the hard work it takes to get there.
In addition to the quantitative free form questions, respondents were also asked to provide their total annual compensation including bonuses and equity, age, and marital status.
The population skews towards happy
The average happiness rating is a 45, with a median value of 50. This means that most people are satisfied with their life, but those who are feeling unhappy are much more unhappy than those who are happy. The highest score somebody gave was a 70, and the lowest score was 0/1 as the lowest. Overall most people fall mostly within the 50–60 range, so I’d say most people skew towards happy.
Annual salary does not affect happiness
Most people did not earn an income in our study. If we analyze the raw data, a one way ANOVA (a comparison of means) suggests that there is a difference in happiness between the different salary groups. However, there was only one respondent for the two highest categories and only five respondents for the third-highest. There’s not enough data to make a realistic conclusion that money affects happiness. If we removed the top three buckets which had few respondents, there would be no difference in happiness.
Age does not affect happiness
Most users in our dataset were students and in the 18–24 year old age range. This would make sense as most of the population came from Reddit. A comparison of means shows that age does not affect happiness.
Marriage significantly increases happiness
The vast majority of the respondents were also legally single and never married. Those who are married on average rated themselves a 53 compared to those who were single with an average of 43. A one way ANOVA comparing single vs married shows with 99% confidence that married individuals are significantly happier.
Closing Thoughts & Takeaway
As science and humanity start to realize that our consciousness is not separated from our bodies, it galvanizes the importance on understanding how to mediate one’s mental health. Hopefully, this study has helped you introspect on your life more. I think it’s important to consider the things that affect you, and what power you have over it. Try creating goals for yourself, and making even smaller, attainable goals to reach them. Even if there’s a lot to do, you will have a positive mindset that one day you know you can get there. That way when you ask yourself, what’s stopping you from achieving your own happiness? The answer will be yourself, not some indeterminate third party outside of your control. Don’t fall into the trap of wanting something without putting the effort to get it, because your desire for that will eventually grow but your progress will still be nothing, causing you more pain in the future.
There’s also a distinction between being happy from something, and earning happiness from it. I’d probably be pretty happy eating a mango, but I would not say it is adding to my life’s general happiness. For me, I always want to travel more. I know I can do it, but the only thing stopping me from doing it is myself. As long as I know that I can do it, it’s not taking away from my happiness.
And question yourself, what ceilings do you have? How might you change the way you think about it so that it’s in your control? Going off of the traveling example, let’s say you rationalize that your ceiling is having a fixed number of Paid Time Off (PTO) days. Technically that does not limit your ability to travel. And if it is what really makes you happy, you could put the power in your hands by negotiating with your boss about getting more time off. And if that doesn’t work and traveling is what really makes you happy, you could say it’s worth it to travel and not get paid for the days you take off. If you can lift your own ceiling, you can alter the way you think about it and be happier without making any actual changes.
This set of questions is probably more meaningful when you can sit down and ask your close friends. You’ll learn what’s been bothering them, and to what extent. Listen carefully to how they respond, and expand on things where you might be able to uncover more, with questions like “How might you do that?” and “Why?” Essentially you’ll learn about their values.
Ultimately this is an observational study, and some things weren’t done scientifically. I did not intend to share the raw data with people at first, but after reading through everything, I was so intrigued that felt like I had to. That way, people can see for themselves and make their own analyses as well. I was up all night just thinking about how people perceive themselves and the world around them, especially those who answered 20 or less. It’s very interesting to see what is affecting people’s lives, and it can start to put your own into perspective. I’m excited to make this an open-source document for others to learn and expand on, just don’t forget to credit me! There are some random highlights of responses that I thought were interesting with no particular meaning in regards to color. Stay happy!