Happiness as a metric

I have recently come across happiness being recommended as a metric by Jeff Sutherland and being worked on by a company called Crisp. The view is that this can help an organisation improve. Rather than take this as a good thing to do on face value I thought I’d do some reading.  This post is largely considers the psychology of happiness based on the work of Jonathan W. Schooler, Dan Aiely, and Georget Loewenstein, with a reference to a New York Times article. I strongly advise you read this work if you want an in depth guide, as they provide evidence in the form of experiments. The recommendations and conclusion sections are my own which draw on those resources.

Happiness Overview:

  • Jeff Sutherland has stated that concentrating on happiness lead to a 500% velocity increase over a year in his company
  • A NY Times study showed happiness was attributed to making progress in meaningful work   – Assisted by managers removing obstacles, providing help and acknowledging strong effort

Happiness is Affected by Context:

  • Strack, Martin, and Stepper showed that people search for context when asked about happiness
  • Any external contextual clues can affect the rating
  • General happiness ratings can be affected by situational factors such as the current weather (Schwarz and Clore)
  • Recommendation: Apply specific context to the happiness question(s)

Frequency of Happiness Measurements

  • Ariely and Zauberman showed that frequent measurement of happiness muffles the overall real experience by overwriting the subtleties of our real experiences
  • Recommendation: Measure happiness infrequently

Happiness Measurements and Self Reflection

  • Wilson and Lindsey showed that increased self reflection has a negative affect on our ability to judge happiness
  • Discouraging self reflection and taking fast snapshot opinions produces more accurate and repeatable results
  • A common finding is that greater awareness actually leads to a more disappointing assessment of happiness
  • Recommendation: Have very fast reflections on happiness (i.e. sub 3 second answers)

Knowing When You Are Happy

  • Great caution must be applied to the assumption that assessing moment to moment hedonic (our internal) experience reflects the persons underlying experience
  • Csikszentmihalyi concludes that it is not possible to continually consciously monitor how we feel throughout the day
  • Due to this lack of awareness it should not be assumed that our appraisals of happiness will match how we actually felt throughout the day
  • Recommendation: Be aware that the results of monitoring happiness may not be accurate

Happiness as a Goal

  • Schooler et al did a study which measured the effects of happiness which showed: 1) Trying to be happy can lead to lower happiness 2) As also concluded earlier, personal monitoring of happiness can undermine the ability to gain happiness
  • Recommendation: Happiness should not be set as a goal but simply monitored

Summary and Conclusions

  • Measuring happiness can affect happiness in a negative way, to minimise this effect measurements should be:


have specific context to the question

be done quickly

  • If we are looking to improve via root cause we will need people to think about “why”:

–  This measure may therefore be self-defeating

  • If we need root cause why not ask a more context specific question, in this example Christiaan Verwijs targets team morale rather than happiness:


5 comments on “Happiness as a metric

  1. Tim,
    thanks for your post. Very clear.

    Do you have any examples of those short, 3 seconds questions? 3 secs suggest that drawing your mood on a board is not a good idea. What do you think?

    • The 3 second questions were a recommendation to reduce the negative impact of the happiness measurement. If you do want to proceed with happiness as a measure then add context so that you can act on the results. Such as, “Are you happy with communication with offshore team members?” The 3 second yes \ no result would then allow you to get closer to the persons subconscious state without a great deal of reasoning. If you already have a perceived list of issues then these types of closed questions may serve as a validation of your underlying assumptions without increasing employee negativity. This would be particularly useful if you already had a solution lined up and just wanted to know if it was worth implementing.
      I am currently looking at Morale as an alternative measurement. I’ll post on this when I’ve made some progress. As a general point a good measurement such as a KPI is set when you have identified something to measure, you don’t set up a measure then look for what it represents. As happiness is so abstract it’s difficult to know exactly what you are measuring (see the definition of SMART).

  2. thanks for replying. I got the idea now.

    Looking forward for your experiences from Morale experiment.

  3. Interesting post, also in relation to the one by Christiaan Verwijs.
    Especially because we are about to introduce a happiness metric into a team and a group of stakeholders.
    I understand the critism on the happiness metric but I find the advice in yours and Christian’s post somewhat conflicting. Christian suggests to ask a set of very concrete questions. Wouldn’t that trigger more reflection time then the 3 seconds recommended in your post?
    Also measering infrequently might make it more difficult to answer quickly.
    The other problem I see is that by adding more context to your questions, you’re also driving the answer towards that context and possibly missing other factors influencing the overal result.
    Like you mention, this can be usefull if you already have your solution (and hence the problem) thought out but less so when you’re less sure about the problem or if there is a problem at all.
    We are currently planning to quickly measuring the happiness of each teammember daily on a scale of 1-10 with discussions delayed until the retrospective. Furthermore we want to measure stakeholders’s happiness with the result of the team every sprint review meeting.
    The latter does try to provide more context and measures less frequently.
    The aim of this is indeed not to set happiness as a goal but as a first more objective measure of how teammembers and stakeholders are judging the teamresult and their participation in that.
    I would be very interested in the benefits and risks that you see with this approach so we can improve it.

    • My point is to ask a more specific question. For example, “how has your morale been over the last sprint and why?” or “how has your team’s morale been over the last two weeks and why?”. The real benefit will be assessing the root cause and not the score in itself.

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