The Happy Forecast and the quantification of emotion

A new project has just been launched which aims at quantifiying and comparing the happiness of different areas of London. The Happy Forecast purports to offer an answer to the question “Which areas of London are best for social wellbeing?” On the website an interactive 3D map of London can be explored down to the level of the postcode.

At the postcode level a “Happiness Outlook” is given based on:

“over a year of observational social wellbeing research” as well as giving a sense of the “current mood” based on analysis of tweets in the area”


The main ranking is based on a “Jen ratio” which is:

“…calculated by the total number of positive micro-interactions over the total number of negative that strangers share during a given period of time, in a given place. Body language, verbal interaction and acts of kindness or aggression were key categories assessed during observation”

The concept of jen is derived from Confucian thought but is definitely twenty-first century in its formulation and the principle behind it can be summarised in the words of its key proponent, Dacher Keltner,  as “a simple fraction [which] can tell us whether or not we’re truly happy”.

Jen is derived from observations of emotions that “transpire between people” such as “compassion, gratitude, awe, embarrassment, and amusement”. In order to analyse this it examines “new human languages” like “movements of muscles in the face that signal devotion, patterns of touch that signal appreciation [and] playful tones of the voice that transform conflicts” as well as drawing on aspects of neuroscience which purportedly signal trust, forgiveness, etc (Keltner, 2009). A jen ratio is calculated like this:

“The jen ratio is a lens onto the balance of good and bad in your life. In the denominator of the jen ratio place recent actions in which someone has brought the bad in others to completion—the aggressive driver who flips you off as he roars past, the disdainful diner in a pricey restaurant who sneers at less well-heeled passersby. Above this, in the numerator of the ratio, tally up the actions that bring the good in others to completion—a kind hand on your back in a crowded subway car, the young child who compliments the elderly woman on her bathing suit as she nervously dips her toe in a swimming pool, the woman who laughs as a stranger accidentally steps on her foot. As the value of your jen ratio rises, so too does the humanity of your world.”

(Keltner, 2009)


I am not quite sure what to make of this on broad terms yet (and would really like to hear from anyone who has any better formed ideas) but it is an interesting mix of ideas which seems to represent a kind of micro utilitarianism aimed at maximizing the quotient of happiness in a particular situation.

Having just heard many deconstructions of the faith we are encouraged to place in data at a recent conference the use of quantified measures and ratios to “tell us whether or not we’re truly happy” strikes me as being part of this fetishisation of big data.

Keltner discusses how the “science” of jen seeks to understand the things which help to “bring the good in others to completion” through performing acts of kindness, it also positions trust as central to this. But he and his fellow researchers at the “Greater Good Science Centre” at the University of California, Berkeley seek to understand these social actions through a Darwinian microbiological approach. They look at the individual neurological transmissions and individual actions such as “a kind hand on your back”.

The assumption of this approach seems to be that we can be happy (or unhappy) and not know it and that our happiness lies in aspects of our behaviour and environment rather than our feelings. This reflects a mistrust in people as speaking subjects. For me one of the great strengths of sociology is that it is dialogical, it engages with the voices of people. The jen ratio has similarities with “big data” approaches which seek to simply let the data “speak for itself”. With fundamentally human and social phenomena such as happiness might it be better to encourage people to speak for themselves?

A few years ago Zygmunt Bauman (2011) warned that sociology has been compliant in producing their subjects (human beings) as objects by rendering people mute in order to understand them sociologically. He asserted the importance of placing the supposedly ‘inferior ‘conscious motives’ of actors on a level with the superior renderings of their intentions by their scientific analysts’ (Bauman, 2011: 165). In his analysis of the measurement of happiness Will Davies has pointed out that people are coming to be seen as ‘unreliable narrators of their own lives’ and that ‘We need to accept that people often have reasons to feel happy or unhappy, and that those reasons are as important as the feelings themselves’ Bauman warned that sociology must must be engaged as a dialogic, or polylogic, discipline this might well mean resisting the kinds of investigation seen in the Happy Forecast despite their enticing immediacy and broad sweep.

Bauman, Z. (2011b) Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age. Cambridge: Polity.

Keltner, D. (2009) ‘First Chapter: Born To Be Good’ The New York Times, January 18 2009

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3 replies »

  1. I work at a new research centre at Oxford, The Dalai Lama Centre For Compassion. We share a lot of common ground with the guys in Berkeley.
    Centres/research units which research things like positive psychology and emotions face an uphill struggle because scientific materialism and reductionism is the orthodoxy not only in Universities, but also in the media and popular imagination.
    If we are to get column inches in newspapers or have an impact, say in policy formulation, we must create a ‘metric’ for compassion/happiness/empathy etc. Of course, we all know that any metric we devised would be 90% bullshit.
    The trouble is that the Social Sciences and Humanities have singularly failed to take on board ideas such as subjectivity, consciousness, quantum indeterminacy, Holistic thinking and all those other ways of understanding which break the 19th Century materialist paradigm. They have failed to take them on board because they would lose all credibility in Universities and journals as they currently are.
    The happiness index you mentioned is an example of what happens when Sociology insists on trying to be a “science”. I am firmly of the opinion that the current scientific paradigm is in desperate need of reform in order to take on board the lessons of the 20th century physicists and that once this paradigm shift finally happens, we will have far better ways of describing and explaining psychology and emotion.
    The men in white coats who are the current gatekeepers of what is deemed appropriate for journals, university courses, television shows, healthcare, warfare and everything else will have to relinquish their power first.
    Until then, we are stuck with lame behaviourist attempts at explaining human reality from the outside in instead of the other way around.

  2. For a taster of what lies beyond the current scientific paradigm, this video is a good start:

  3. Many thanks for your comment, Kerry. Really interesting points. I might be confused but you suggest that the jen ratio I discussed in the post is the result of sociology trying to be a science. As far as I am aware it was not developed by sociologists or directly incorporated any sociological ideas. It was developed by Keltner and colleagues at the “Greater Good Science Center” at Berkeley who (as far as I can tell) do try to incorporate some of the ideas you have discussed. Again, I may not have completely grasped your point but I don’t agree that the social sciences and humanities have not drawn on concepts such as subjectivity and consciousness (I will concede your points on quantum indeterminacy and holistic thinking as I do not know what these are). Subjectivity is a central aspect of sociological inquiry although of course this is tackled in a different way to how it is in philosophy. There are journals dedicated to it, it is pivotal in the founding texts of the discipline (eg. Weber) and most undergraduate students would encounter Merlau-Ponty amongst others. The video you linked to was great but I think supported the point I made in the post. As Stephen Priest stated in the lecture subjective experience has been devalued in favour of the God’s eye view of science. I argued above that we should listen to the subjective experiences of people rather than imposing an abstractly defined quantitative measure onto them.

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