My Happiness Index Is Dead

The more I think about the happiness index, the more I think it’s broken. We should change it into an improvement index.

Today I was very happy. Except for the intimidating line of 15 people at the hotel’s check-out desk, the rest of my visit to Copenhagen, including my presentation at Nordea bank, went as well as I could hope for. I would give today a 5 out 5 on the happiness index.

Yesterday I was also very happy. Except for the stupid design of the power socket near my hotel bed, I enjoyed my stay in Helsinki. And the participants of my course (which had sold out) all seemed to be quite satisfied. I’d give yesterday also a 5.

It wouldn't surprise me if tomorrow, when I’m giving a presentation at a seminar in Bonn, is also going to result in a 5.

It almost seems boring, doesn’t it? I rate every day with a 5. Sure, I complain a lot (I’m Dutch after all), but overall I’m quite happy with my life and the work I created for myself.

It appears I’m suffering from a flatliner. It’s a 5 almost every day.

This is not good. Nothing much is happening.

My happiness index is almost dead.

Relative Metrics

In his last book Jim Highsmith wrote that relative metrics are better than absolute metrics. And the beyond budgeting principles suggest the same thing. You should prefer relative performance over absolute targets. Aiming to “do your best” is an absolute target. Aiming to do “better than yesterday” is a relative target.

I don’t like scoring a 5 every day, because I cannot improve beyond 5. Once I’ve reached 5, things can only get worse. It’s quite depressing, actually. That’s why I think we should change the absolute scale of 1 .. 5 to a relative scale of –2 .. +2.

We could change the happiness index into an improvement index.

Improvement Index

0 means… nothing has changed. Today was very similar to yesterday. No improvements. No setbacks. Nothing special. Life goes on. I’m still here.

+1 means today was better than yesterday. Something small improved my work. And +2 means something big had a major impact on my daily life.

-1 means today was worse than yesterday. Something small worsened my work. And -2 means something big had a negative impact on my daily life.


On the improvement index, it appears I have scored 0 for several days. Aha! Now there’s room for improvement! In fact, with this index there’s always room for improvement.

Despite the hotel wi-fi, which costs me 22 euros per day here in Germany (which is how they support the EU), I’m still happy. Just like yesterday. But now I have an incentive to make a small improvement, no matter what it is. Just to see if I can make my day a +1.

Maybe I should find an alternative to expensive hotel wi-fi…

My Happiness Index is dead. Long live the Improvement Index.


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  • Leyton

    I dunno, I like the happiness index; your scale is just saturated! 😀 Perhaps widen it to
    6 – ecstatic
    7 – I’m so happy I just can’t stop giggling to
    8 – okay, people are starting to think I’m nuts
    walking around with this smile on my face
    all the time
    9 – this is cool! I’ve got a following of smilers!
    Happiness really is infectious! 🙂

  • Mark

    One could also argue that everything is fine regarding your happiness and your ‘improvement-energy’ should go elsewhere.
    It does sound very Dutch to be still complaining about your metrics when your very happy 🙂

  • Andre Java

    Nice Insight Jurgen.

  • Henrik Kniberg

    Very nice insights, thanks for sharing! Love the concrete examples :o)
    This post touches upon a more general point: when your current metric no longer generates insights, find a new metric that does.

  • Sylvia

    Hello Jurgen,
    I think you are perfectly right. Being happy is not good enough. It does not force you to get out of the comfort zone and thus you will stop improving.
    This is even more true since not all people have the same feeling of happiness (meaning some manage to be happy sooner than others – so do I and this is a good thing :)).
    So although you might be happy the way it works there is always a lot to improve/learn/develop…
    In the sense of not to stop learning, to further develop, go different directions – I think your improvement index is a better metric but perhaps it is just necessary for those who manage to get a flatliner on happiness …

  • Roberto

    Hi, very nice but… happiness is more complex.
    I remember my 30th burthday. Nothingh was wrong bud I was very sad. And I remember my 40th burthday: in that time my son was suffering severe stomach problems (he was operated on and is fine now) my wife in those days had pleurisy, everything seemed to be negative, but I was working to help them. I was tired, worried but not sad: I had a mission!

    One of the gratest Italian literary man of XX centuty, Cesare Pavese, when he committed suicide, he had won the “Premio Strega” (perhaps the biggest awardin Italian literature) and all recognized its cultural value.
    Some years earlier he had written a poem in which he said:
    Non c’è cosa più amara dell’alba
    di un giorno in cui nulla accadrà.
    (There is nothing more bitter then dawn of a day in which nothing happens)

  • mfm719

    Thanks for an insightful article. It’s an interesting concept. I think that would help most of us when we feel like things are not the way we wish they were. That said, I have found the quest for happiness to be very elusive, but I feel better when I am focused more on making someone else happy.

  • Improvement on Social Media

    The more I think about the happiness index, the more I think it’s broken.

  • Anders

    Except the title “improvement index” I agree with you. Improvement moves my thought towards efficiency and productivity and that’s totally different.
    In your case however, I can’t help to wonder. Won’t you just be giving yourself zeros? and nothing will have changed?


    Here’s my critique based on psychological studies, I believe it isn’t a good measure. Have a read and let me know what you think. Thanks, Tim

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Great piece, thanks!

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