This is a follow-up question to: Do people feel emotions less strongly as they grow older?

Basically - I'm wondering - has anyone ever made an empirical measurement of how strongly someone felt happiness, sadness, anger or grief? Is it also possible to compare intensities of emotion between different people? And if so, how?

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    $\begingroup$ Please refrain from including all the details in your title. That's what the content area is for. I adjusted it in a suggested edit. $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Jan 22, 2012 at 13:33

2 Answers 2


Since things like happiness, sadness, and grief are highly subjective, so I don't think there's any way you could measure those variables directly.

You could operationally define those emotions, such as measuring happiness by the number of hours someone spends doing something they enjoy, but you can imagine all of the confounds involved with that.

Or, you could define a general scale (see here for a list of those having to do with pain) and rank how people score on it. Then, you could use principles of non-parametric statistics to compare your rankings.

You could also measure known anatomical correlates (e.g., activity in the amygdala as a basis of fear via fMRI), but so many emotions/feelings/other background processing overlap in certain brain regions that the validity would have to be shown through good controls.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm guessing the 'heart' of this question is really whether you can tell whether what one person experiences physically as a certain level of happiness corresponds to what another one experiences. For this purpose, I would believe subjective studies get you nowhere, but you pointed that out, so +1. $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Jan 22, 2012 at 16:04

States versus traits

  • In general, it's important to distinguish between emotional states and emotional traits (i.e., the tendency for a person to experience a given emotion, e.g., see trait positive and negative affect scales). Thus, as a side note, there's a lot of research that looks at emotional traits in areas such as personality trait theory and research on subjective well-being (e.g., this chapter by Lucas and Diener, PDF). It sounds like your question is concerned with measuring emotional states.

General measurement strategies

There are many options for measuring emotional intensity:

  • subjective
  • behavioural
  • physiological / neurological

Both subjective and behavioural measures could be obtained by self-report or other-report.

Experience sampling

  • With regards to measuring the intensity of emotional experience, you may want to read up about experience sampling studies (see the review by Schimmack (2003), PDF). Experience sampling studies use a variety of scales; a common one I've seen involves the use of a grid with hedonic tone on the x-axis (negative to positive) and activation on the y-axis (passive to active). The benefit of experience sampling is that the time between event and measurement is short. Thus, issues related to recall are reduced.
  • Of course, one could challenge such a measure on the basis that it is subjective. However, that is an issue of measurement validity. There are many real challenges, but limitations of measurement are not fatal. Evidence can be collected and arguments can be made to justify validity. And even when there are some issues of measurement, meaningful findings can often still be obtained.

Comparing emotional intensity across individuals

  • I agree that there would be issues related to frame of reference effects when it comes to comparing self-reported emotional intensity across individuals. That said I still think that self-report measures would be informative, and that a multifaceted approach combining physiological with other-report and self-report would also be useful.


  • Lucas, R. E. & Diener, E. Personality and subjective well-being. FREE PDF
  • Schimmack, U. (2003). Affect measurement in experience sampling research. Journal of Happiness Studies, 4, 79-106. FREE PDF

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