Is it possible to measure happiness?

The argument from measurability
  • Erik Angner
Original paper in the Philosophy of the Cognitive Sciences


A ubiquitous argument against mental-state accounts of well-being is based on the notion that mental states like happiness and satisfaction simply cannot be measured. The purpose of this paper is to articulate and to assess this “argument from measurability.” My main thesis is that the argument fails: on the most charitable interpretation, it relies on the false proposition that measurement requires the existence of an observable ordering satisfying conditions like transitivity. The failure of the argument from measurability, however, does not translate into a defense of mental-state accounts as accounts of well-being or of measures of happiness and satisfaction as measures of well-being. Indeed, I argue, the ubiquity of the argument from measurability may have obscured other, very real problems associated with mental-state accounts of well-being – above all, that happiness and satisfaction fail to track well-being – and with measures of happiness and satisfaction – above all, the tendency toward reification. I conclude that the central problem associated with the measurement of, e.g., happiness as a subjectively experienced mental state is not that it is too hard to measure, but rather that it is too easy to measure.


Well-being Welfare Happiness Measurement Reification 



I am grateful to Zvi Biener, Robyn Dawes, Greg Frost-Arnold, Daniel Hausman, Brian Hepburn, Harold Kincaid, Peter Machamer, Gualtiero Piccinini, Nicholas Rescher, Don Ross, Sam Wren-Lewis, and anonymous referees for constructive comments on earlier drafts. Errors remain my own.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyGeorge Mason UniversityFairfaxUSA

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