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This paper traces the historical roots of subjective measures of wellbeing, that is, measures designed to represent happiness, satisfaction, or other “positive” or desirable mental states. While it is often suggested that these measures are a modern invention, I argue that they have a long and rich history that conforms to Theodore M. Porter’s general account of measurement in social and behavioral science. Subjective measures emerged in marital success studies, educational psychology, and personality psychology in the 1920s and 30s, and were further shaped by the epidemiology of mental health, gerontology, and the social indicator movement in the 1960s and 70s. Consistent with Porter’s account, these measures emerged in applied rather than theoretical branches of social and behavioral science, and they did so not as a result of physics envy, but rather as a result of a moral impulse to improve society; quantification was intended to make up for perceived deficiencies in unaided human judgment; and radical disagreements about the nature of wellbeing did not impede efforts to measure it – indeed, in time, there was considerably more agreement about how to measure wellbeing than about how to define it.
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