Measuring States of Mind

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

Hip economist Justin Wolfers told NPR’s Chana Joffe-Walt that unemployment is just as subjective as happiness:

It turns out, though, that lots of economic data get squishy when you take a close look.

In the U.S, in order to be counted as unemployed, you have to be out of a job and looking for work. But what counts as looking for work? Checking Craigslist? Sending out three resumes a week? Five?

‘It’s actually kind of a hard question,’ says Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Michigan. ‘It’s very subjective.’

Measuring the number of unemployed in a country of 313 million people is a difficult and, no doubt about it, to some extent “subjective” task. Rea Hederman Jr. explained the difficulty in a 2010 National Affairs essay. But that difficulty seems to me to be totally different from the impossibility of accounting for the individual states of mind of those 313 million men, women, and children—states of mind that are mercurial and mysterious to the individuals who experience them.

When the government measures unemployment, it is trying to measure an activity: Are you looking for work? When a government measures “happiness,” it is trying to measure an emotional state: How do you feel? Not only is the first question easier to answer than the second one. It’s another sort of question entirely.