How do you measure your happiness

About measuring happiness

UNICUM: What made you decide to study happiness research as a graduate economist?
Prof. Bruno. S. Frey: I was always of the opinion that in economics too much emphasis is placed on recording the production of goods and services, as is done, for example, in the calculation of the national product. Economic activity should primarily serve to satisfy people or, in the language of economists, to maximize their utility. For a long time we did not know how to measure this aspect and have now learned from social psychology that one can ask certain reasonable questions in order to measure how satisfied people are with their lives.

What questions do you ask? Or rather, how do you measure happiness?
One proceeds very carefully and uses questions that have been carefully examined beforehand to determine whether they are suitable for recording individual happiness. I have to admit that I used to think I couldn't ask such questions. But I have been convinced of the opposite. So you ask a representative cross-section of the population the following question: "How satisfied are you overall with the life you lead?" Then you specify a scale from zero to ten, where zero stands for "totally unhappy" and ten for "totally satisfied". The results then show that the answers correlate very well with things that a sane person associates with happiness. Happy people are therefore more socially open, more active, more future-oriented and have fewer conflicts at work.



Unemployment and autonomy as factors of happiness

How did this insight influence your view of classical economics?
In classical economics, the wrong approach to data collection has often been followed by looking at people's active behavior. This was based on the assumption that the respondents would not answer truthfully and so direct observation was seen as a way out. When a country has very asymmetrical migratory movements with high emigration and low immigration, the traditional economy assumes that residents cannot be very happy. However, this actual behavior can be traced back to a wide variety of reasons and cannot be justified that easily. For example, it was difficult to understand how happy people are with economic policy decisions.

What can economics learn from happiness research?
We have gained some surprising insights, one of which is the issue of unemployment. Anyone who loses their job also dramatically loses their satisfaction with life. It is important to note that this assessment can be made regardless of the income situation. So people are not only unhappy because they have a lower income, but above all because they have less contact with other people and lose touch with other people. In addition, their self-esteem suffers a lot because they are no longer useful to them Look at the economy and society. This is an important finding, since there are always people who assume that the unemployed have a certain motivation to do nothing. We must clearly contradict that.

What other insight did you gain?
The second result shows that the self-employed are happier than the non-self-employed. This is surprising because the self-employed earn less on average than other professionals, their personal risk is of course much higher and they have longer working hours than employees. The main reason for the higher satisfaction lies in the autonomy to shape their life as they see fit.

"Satisfaction with life is genetically predetermined"

As a happiness researcher, how do you see the rational approach of Homo Oeconomicus?
The Homo Oeconomicus approach is certainly outdated, but harsh criticism should be handled with care. We should not go into the opposite and assume that all human beings are acting unselfishly. Many individuals act selfishly because they depend on it to ensure their survival. We have to be a little careful. Conversely, the idea that all people act only selfishly is equally wrong. To a large extent, we also work for intrinsic motives, i.e. because we enjoy our work, because we are committed or do something good in the process.

What promotes personal happiness?
A large part of our satisfaction with life is genetically predetermined. There is nothing we can do about that. On the other hand, there is a considerable part that we can influence. For me, acquiring a good one training extremely important in order to be able to benefit from life even better later. When traveling, in particular, you have an enormous advantage if you can demonstrate an understanding of the language and culture. After all, better education comes with a higher income and healthier diet. As a consequence, both are extremely beneficial.

A lucky political dictatorship? No thanks!

What effects does politics have on individual happiness?
Under no circumstances should a government try to make people happy directly. This leads to a happy dictatorship like the one we experienced after the French Revolution. Because to make all citizens happy is almost impossible because of the great individuality of the citizens. Rather, the task of politics is to give us the opportunity to be happy, i.e. to promote voluntary commitment or independence. Politics should also give us greater opportunities to have a direct say in politics. I am a strong believer in direct democracy by means of referendums, which enable the population to express their displeasure directly, to which the rulers have to react. That doesn't always seem to be the case in Germany. Some politicians seem too arrogant and don't seem to take the interests of their voters seriously. That should change urgently.


  • Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Bruno S. Frey studied economics in Basel and Cambridge and received his doctorate from the University of Basel in 1965, before completing his habilitation there four years later. Professorships in Basel, Konstanz and Zurich followed, including in the field of finance and economics.
  • Most recently he was Distinguished Professor of Behavioral Science at the Warwick Business School of the University of Warwick in Great Britain and in 2012 also took over the professorship for political economy at the Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen.
  • He is considered one of the most renowned European economists of the time and puts his research focus on the application of economic principles in politics, art or history as well as the expansion of human behavioral models through integration-sociological and psychological explanations.
  • Further information at: www.bsfrey.ch

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