Updated on 11.01.07

Revisiting The Happiness Scale

Trent Hamm

Several days ago, I wrote a lengthy review of Stumbling on Happiness, where I discussed the idea of a happiness scale:

Take a set of experiences in your life and put them on a scale of 1 to 10, where the 10 is the greatest happiness you’ve ever experienced. For most people, experiences above a 2 or a 3 put them in a positive mood. Now, imagine a piece of your favorite kind of cake. Where does it rank on that scale? For some people, it might rank a 3, or a 5 – it depends on a lot of different factors.

Since I wrote that, the idea of a happiness scale and how it relates to my financial state has been floating around in my mind quite a bit, to the point where I tried to figure out a happiness scale for my own life. Doing this brought about a number of revelations about life and money, but I thought I’d walk through the whole thing first.

First of all, I tried to determine the happiest moment in my life, and eventually determined that it was the immediate aftermath of my wedding, starting with the drive from the wedding to the reception on through the honeymoon. The next closest moment was the birth of my first child. Those register as roughly a 10 and a 9.8 (or so) on my scale.

I then tried to determine the saddest moment of my life, and the best I could think of was the morning after my dad caught spinal meningitis and my grandma was trying to prepare me for him passing away (thankfully, he recovered after a very long hospital stay, including some very frightening periods). I was rather young and the thought of my father dying was almost unimaginable. That, of course, would be a zero. I then decided that an average day – on average – would be somewhere around a two, and started trying to give scores to other things in my life.

I do have a point, just bear with me.

What I found was that almost everything I marked as a deeply happy moment didn’t cost very much money at all when you got right down to it. Sure, my wedding and honeymoon was expensive, but the birth of my child was covered by insurance and almost every other very happy moment in my life was free or nearly free.

Most of them revolved around family, personal accomplishment, and learning. Every moment that was truly joyous in my life was heavily tied to at least one of those areas.

Even more interesting, I started to try to “score” things I do normally in my daily life. What were the happiest moments of an average day? What moments filled me with satisfaction, but not deep joy? What was I indifferent about, and what did I dislike?

I found several interesting things.

The highest points were almost completely cost-free. The highest point is usually playing with my son, particularly when we’re both in a rather playful mood, which happens several times a week. After that comes conversations with my wife, who is my spiritual and mental equal and partner. Holding my daughter when she’s awake and happy is right up there, too, but probably not quite as high as those two.

Most of the things that cost money, such as video games, were lower. They were well above average, but they rarely reached the peaks of the other events. The only thing that comes close is when I play games with my friends and family, but that’s largely because of the social interaction.

What does that mean? The really valuable things in my life right now don’t cost significant amounts of money. In fact, the things I do that really bring value to me are either nearly free (reading, writing) or can actually save money as compared to “normal” living (cooking). It also made me somewhat less interested in my more expensive hobbies – when I actually sat down and looked at the value and happiness they contribute to my life per dollar, they’re not much of a value.

Here’s the take-home: spend some time thinking about the things that bring you the most joy, then compare that joy to the things you do in your everyday life. Do the things you do for entertainment and enjoyment bring you an appropriate amount of joy for the amount of money you spend on them, especially as compared to other options in your life?

In a way, this means that I find extra fulfillment in frugal activity. Knowing that I’m not spending money to enjoy something deepens that enjoyment a bit more, while knowing that I’m spending a lot of money for enjoyment lessens that enjoyment a bit.

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  1. sunshine says:

    Now THAT is an interesting take on things. I like the experiment. I might do it myself, we’ll see what I come up with.

  2. I get a lot of joy from being frugal and practicing financial efficiency as well.

    I could easily blow all of my money on temporary short lived material things such as fast cars and frequent expensive dinners but those experiences would be only for the moment. I actually get more satisfaction from knowing that the money I saved is now happily sitting in my bank account working hard to compound that interest.

    I disagree that the best things in life are free though….I think the best ones actually are quite expensive. But sometimes it’s the pursuit that makes life worthwhile, rather than the actual goal.


  3. Susy says:

    I get much joy from my morning latte, which then makes the rest of my day better. I also get much satisfaction in saving money and being frugal.

    Most of my great moments also revolve around free or very low cost activities.

    Great exercise, great way to kick off your month of not spending money on things you don’t need! Keep this in mind all month and it should be easy!

  4. Jayne says:

    I think this is a great post and so I hope my comment isn’t taken in the wrong way at all. But parts of this post made me laugh, because it reminds me so much of my Dad. He’s always trying to use his analytical skills for things that can’t always be analyzed. Recent example, “Well, if we do x,y, and z- we can have a 5 percent better time.”

  5. rstlne says:

    It goes both ways. My happiest times have been very inexpensive at times and not so inexpensive at other times. All I can say is spending an order of magnitude more money does not always bring an order of magnitude more happiness.

  6. louise says:

    I get a lot of joy out of my work, if most of my days were only 2 on a scale of 1-10 I would have to change things pretty quick thats why I have moved on when I get bored of a job. Work for me is about a 7-8. Life is too short to spend it being miserable and it doesn’t take money to be happy. great post!

  7. KellyB says:

    What a fantastic article! I am new to the site, just found you yesterday, and I am enjoying looking through old articles. Thanks for the info and insight, keep up the great work.

  8. SJean says:

    Interesting post. A lot of my most happy times in my life do stem from travel and new adventures (not cheap!), though those experiences would be empty without the people who I experience them with.

    Of course, there are plenty of other free happy moments

  9. Lisa says:

    This is SUCH a great thought provoking article. I’m definitely going to keep it in mind when spending money in the future. Thank you!

  10. frugalgirl says:

    This reminds me of the ideas in the books “Flow” and “Finding Flow” (my favorite of the two) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — in which he describes the surprising findings that we’re often happiest and most engaged while doing “work” of some sort or productive hobbies — rather than doing mindless things we think would make us happy. Good stuff.

  11. Jen says:

    I’m a little worried that your average day is a 2.

    Shouldn’t your average day be a 5, statistically speaking.

    Sort of like the average IQ is 100 by definition.

    That means most of your days are pretty bad. You should look into getting more happiness out of your life.

  12. Frugal Bachelor is not sure that anything involving children or a spouse is “cost-free”. In the United States studies report that it costs more than $250,000 to raise a child to age 17. Having a spouse can save money if you stay married for a very long time, but if the marriage ends in a divorce it will be extremely costly.

  13. Mitchell Up In Canada says:

    When looking at the value of a discretionary activity in your life you might also consider the time involved. This will give you a way to balance the cost, enjoyment and time commitment involved.

    I try to avoid too many activities whose cost per hour of enjoyment is dramatically higher than my real wage (when all time and monetary overhead is factored in.) I call this the LE ratio of the activity. If my real wage is $10 per hour of labour and trips to the Caribbean have a real cost $100 per hour of enjoyment this indicates to me that

    A. The enjoyment level needs to be quite high to justify the 10 to 1 hours of labour to hours of enjoyment (LE) ratio.

    B. I can’t afford to spend a lot of time engaging in this expensive activity (so the anticipation and good memories need to last a long time.)

    As you say, there are many inexpensive activities in life that are just as enjoyable (and often more enjoyable) than more expensive activities. The more of your discretionary time you fill with enjoyable activities that have a low LE ratio the easier you’ll find it to be happy AND financially fit.

    Likewise, if a discretionary activity takes up a lot of time (however enjoyable) you need to be realistic about whether you can squeeze it into your life.

    In no particular order I enjoy reading, learning new things, gardening, home canning, cooking, travelling, investing, origami, playing cards, cycling, studying the bible, fishing, hiking, paddling, cross country skiing, flying kites, walking, photography, golfing, watching movies, and playing with my kids. Unfortunately I only have 34 hours a week (after eating, sleeping, commuting and working) to do chores and discretionary activities. As a result I can’t fit it all in and have to choose.

    So what do I do? I look for activities with a low time commitment to enjoyment (TE) ratio. I also look for activities with ‘multiple streams of enjoyment’ (to poach another financial concept.) A nice example is walking to the library to read an interesting magazine with my kids. That’s four things I enjoy rolled up into one that is virtually free! What more can you ask for?

    I enjoy your posts. Thanks.
    Mitchell Up In Canada

  14. vandana arora says:

    hi, I am new to this site and found your articles extremelty mindblowing.
    You always try to focus on small things which we generally ignore in our lives,may be due to work load,stress etc….and these things value a lot much more than money.Spending time and enjoying with our kids makes them feel secure, happy and here saving money by spending time with them,for me its the last thing.

    I am from India, me and my hubby,we both are working and we hardly get some time to play with her, my daughter Medha,though somehow we try to manage to give her time,but that is at the end of the day, when we both are tired.I know its a bit difficult for us,but yes that is what she requires.

  15. Debbie M says:

    I thought there was a whole chapter on this in Your Money or Your Life. Oh well, maybe I’m remembering wrong.

    Mitchel, sometimes it’s hard to calculate the time spent. One thing about travel is that I keep enjoying it even after it’s officially over. At the least, I like looking through my photo album. At best, it colors many aspects of my life afterwards.

  16. Colin says:

    I think there are indirect costs no matter what, such as the costs it took to develop the relationship between you and your eventual wife, which also led to childbirth on the basis that you were financially able. The dinners, the drinks, the gifts, whatever else it took throughout the years to make that relationship bud.

    Regardless, it’s a great concept to think about, as we all could use a little more happiness in our lives I’m sure. Interesting stuff.

  17. Peter says:

    I’ve recently become a big fan of happiness economics and how it relates to one’s personal life. I’ve come to similar conclusions. Most “things” don’t provide happiness, “experiences” do. If you spend some time thinking about it you can figure out ways to be happier and spend less all at once! Great combo.

  18. 60 in 3 - Fitness and Health says:

    My best vacation ever was a recent canoe trip. Total cost was around $300 for 5 days. Previous vacations for a single weekend were up in the $1000’s of dollars but weren’t as much fun. It definitely taught me that money does not equal happiness.


  19. Maggie Shaw says:

    I find that my happiest times are at the gym at night. My makeup comes off and I work out my frustrations of the day. Your post did worry me a little bit. Your best days are only a 2 and the time spent with your daughter is not as enjoyable as that spent with your son? That seems so sad and disappointing to me.

  20. Jim Lippard says:

    There are a lot of incorrect inferences being drawn from recent happiness studies, some of which arise from comparing a fixed scale (self-ratings of happiness) to an open-ended scale (how much income does a person make). Will Wilkinson has written an excellent (and very interesting) survey of happiness research and its limitations.

  21. Jim Lippard says:

    “Your best days are only a 2 and the time spent with your daughter is not as enjoyable as that spent with your son? That seems so sad and disappointing to me.”

    His daughter is still a baby. His son is developing into an interacting, intelligent person. I’m sure his self-ratings of interactions with his daughter will go up as she grows and develops the ability to do interact and engage in speech.

    And then those ratings will go down as they enter their teen years…

  22. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Well, my daughter is less than two months old, so my interactions with her are primarily holding her. My son is almost two years old, on the other hand, so my interactions with him are much different and more fulfilling for both of us.

    I set “2” on the scale as being my average day. Why? The scale is about happiness, not sadness. It enables me to do more careful comparisons between things that make me happy.

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